A federal judge has dismissed former stuntwoman Leslie Hoffman’s lawsuit against the SAG Pension Plan, saying its decision to strip her of her occupational disability pension – and force her to repay $123,827 in SAG benefits – “was neither arbitrary nor capricious and was based on reasonable evidence.”
Hoffman said she plans to appeal, though she expects to go broke and lose her house long before an appeal is ever heard.
U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real noted that his decision (read it here) to dismiss her case earlier this month was based in part on the fact that the Plan had revoked Hoffman’s benefits because it “relied on (Hoffman’s) various Internet profiles indicating that she had been employed in movies and shows as a stunt coordinator during the time she claimed to be totally disabled.”
Once one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen, and the first to serve on the boards of directors of both SAG and AFTRA, Hoffman says a series of job-related injuries and concussions over her long career made it impossible for her to continue working.
In 2004, the SAG Plan gave her a disability pension for depression, but not for any lasting injuries she may have received from her stunt work. In 2009, she applied to convert her SAG disability pension into an occupational disability pension in order to receive the additional benefit of SAG health coverage. She was denied and filed a lawsuit to get the health benefits. Her suit was dismissed, only to see it reinstated by the appellate court after it found that she had not been given a “fair hearing.”
“Hoffman worked as a stunt actress in motion pictures, but ceased work … because of a variety of physical injuries,” the appellate court ruled in 2014. “In 2003, Hoffman was admitted for psychiatric treatment on two occasions and ultimately diagnosed with severe major depression. In 2004, the Social Security Administration awarded Hoffman disability benefits due to her depression. As a result, Hoffman became eligible for and eventually obtained a disability pension under the Plan. Five years later, Hoffman submitted an application to convert her disability pension to an ‘occupational disability pension’ in order to receive the additional benefit of health coverage.”
In order to qualify for an occupational disability benefit, however, she had to show she suffered from a total disability that occurred in the course of employment covered by the Plan. To support her claim, Hoffman presented the Plan with a Social Security report that described her back injury as “severe” and “degenerative” – evidence she says showed that her disability was not only emotional but physical and that it had been caused by years of stunt work.
In 2010, the Plan consulted with a doctor, who, without examining her, determined she indeed was disabled under the Plan — but only on the basis of mental illness and not because of a work-related injury. Hoffman appealed to the Plan’s Benefits Committee, which, according to the appellate court, “denied her appeal without consulting with a second medical professional.”
“Notably,” the appeals court ruled, “the district court acknowledged that the Plan erred in failing to obtain a second medical opinion in assessing her administrative appeal in violation of Employee Retirement Income Security Act regulations.”
The Plan then brought in more doctors to review her medical records – though none actually examined her – and found she was not totally disabled.
One of her own doctors, however, said she suffered from traumatic brain injury. Dr. J. Michael Uszler, an expert in the field, concluded that Hoffman had sustained the injury “most commonly clinically associated with head injury.”
Dr. Jeffrey Salberg, who she’d been seeing for years, agreed. In 2011 he wrote that she “remains disabled due to post concussive syndrome as a result of multiple head injuries sustained as a result of her employment of being a stuntwoman. She has had ongoing symptoms of the condition since I first began caring for her in 1998, and they have failed to improve after evaluation and treatment by specialists.” In 2012, he diagnosed Hoffman with “traumatic brain injury and “severe back, neck, knee and shoulder injuries … due to continuous traumas throughout her stunt career.”
That finding was confirmed by Dr. Daniel Amen, the famed head injury doctor. After reviewing SPECT scans of her brain in 2012, he wrote that “a brain injury pattern is seen on scans” and recommended that she “avoid any behaviors that further increase the risk a brain injury.”
The judge, however, sided with the Plan.“This Court has reviewed the administrative record and is satisfied that at least five of the independent, unrelated medical professionals were of the opinion that (Hoffman) was not totally disabled as defined by the Plan,” he ruled.
Given her history of mental and physical health issues, however, it’s doubtful any company would hire her or that any insurer would bond her for such work. Even so, the SAG Plan – and now the judge – think she’s ready to return to work as a Hollywood stunt coordinator and that the lives of cast and crew will be perfectly safe in her hands.
And because she’s been deemed to have been fully capable of coordinating dangerous stunts all this time that she’d been receiving disability payments, the Plan wants her to return all the benefits she’s received – plus interest.
In June 2015, the Plan sent her a letter saying it wants her to return the $123,827 she’d received in benefits because it “became aware that you have been holding yourself out as available to work as a stunt coordinator and have been engaged on certain projects as a stunt coordinator during the course of your claimed disability.”
The only proof they offered of this, however, were smudged printouts from her website – and from listings on her IMDb page they’d circled as evidence – that show that she’d been, or had been holding herself out as, a “stunt coordinator” while receiving SAG disability payments.
In fact, those “Internet profiles” the Plan and the judge site as “evidence” show nothing of the kind. Even a cursory review of the Plan’s own evidence against her shows that Frances Dee, the star of one of those projects – a short film called Far as the Eye Can See – had died in March 2004. That’s three months before Hoffman’s first SAG disability hearing – indisputable proof that the work had been completed before she began receiving her pension. And had they bothered to read the letter written by the film’s director, Roy McDonald, and the supporting documentation he sent Hoffman’s attorney, they would have seen that although it had been released in 2006, it had been shot in 1999, five full years before she began collecting SAG disability.
McDonald said he is shocked that the Plan would use his small film to take away Hoffman’s disability pension. “I thought that everyone in Hollywood knows that release dates are not the same as the dates films are shot,” he told Deadline. “This is a shame. She worked hard, tried to do the right thing, and this is what she gets.”
Two of the other projects cited as “evidence” by the Plan and the judge were Star Trek fan videos for which Hoffman received no pay. One of them, called Star Trek: New Voyages – and misidentified on IMDb as a “TV series” – was filmed near her parents’ home in New York, where she stayed while visiting the set. It was not a job, and it was anything but work.
Hoffman, who in her heyday had performed stunts in numerous episodes of real Star Trek TV sequels – Voyager and Deep Space Nine – was a welcome guest for the Trekkies making the fan webisodes. “She didn’t work and she wasn’t paid. None of us were. She came and played with us on her own dime,” the fan video’s art director, James Lowe, told Deadline. “She even paid her own air fare. I don’t know where they came up with the idea that she worked.”
The other Internet evidence was an IMDb entry that lists Hoffman as the “fight coordinator” for a 12-minute USC student film titled Dead Ballerina, which was written, directed, produced, edited and cast by the same person, who also did the all the cinematography, production design and sound mixing. And again she received no pay. They also relied on a posting on Hoffman’s own site in which she described herself as a stunt coordinator on another short Star Trek fan webisode – Starship Farragut – for which she again received no pay.