Disabled stuntwoman Leslie Hoffman has won a major legal battle in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has reversed a lower court’s ruling and ordered a trial of her lawsuit that claimed that the SAG Pension Plan wrongfully terminated her occupational disability pension.
In a ruling handed down today, the appellate court found that US District Court Judge Manuel Real had “erred” in granting the pension plan’s motion for summary judgment in 2016, reversed his decision, and remanded her case for trial. It’s the second time she’s gotten a favorable ruling from the appeals court since she first filed suit in 2010.
Read the court papers here.
The appeals court today also issued a stern rebuke of the SAG Pension Plan, which, after a slipshod investigation, determined that she’d worked and held herself out for work while collecting SAG disability benefits – and then took away her disability pension and ordered her to repay $123,827 in benefits she’d received over a 13-year period, plus another $8,457 in interest on those payments.
Hoffman’s case has been bouncing around in the courts for years. But it turns out that the Plan’s trustees and attorneys knew all along that she never worked under SAG’s jurisdiction while disabled. In fact, the Plan’s own records, obtained by Deadline, show that she has had no SAG earnings at all, except residuals, since 2001. Her tax records show the same thing. The only “work” she performed since then was as an unpaid adviser on a Star Trek fan video in 2014 – for which she even paid her own expenses.
In its ruling today, the appeals court found that “Although the Plans repeatedly requested that Hoffman provide all of her tax records to the board of trustees, the Plans later claimed that they only reviewed a ‘summary’ of these records, and retroactively denied Hoffman’s benefits in part on the basis that Hoffman was holding herself out to be available to work.”
“In contrast,” the court found, “Hoffman provided voluminous tax records to the Plans to show she had not been paid for work since her disability began. The Plans acknowledged receiving these, but did not include them in the administrative record, suggesting that the Plans did not review them.”
“Similarly, the Plans claimed they did not record Hoffman’s hearing on appeal and denied Hoffman’s request to provide any such recordings. However, the Plans later filed a motion for attorneys’ fees for 3.8 hours for drafting memorandum regarding duty to disclose recording at trustees’ meetings.”
The court also found that “The Plans relied on a report from the Plans’ new medical director, who reviewed the record and determined that Hoffman was not disabled. That report was inadvertently omitted from the disclosure of the administrative record, though it was later supplemented at an unspecified date. Yet, there is nothing in the record showing that Hoffman received that report prior to the decision.”
Hoffman, once one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen — she was the first stuntwoman ever elected to the SAG and AFTRA boards of directors — has twice been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries that she says were the result of one too many concussions sustained during her many years of stunt work. She hasn’t been able to work since 2002.
In 2003, she was admitted for psychiatric treatment on two occasions and was ultimately diagnosed with severe major depression. In 2004, the Social Security Administration awarded Hoffman disability benefits due to her depression. As a result, she became eligible for and eventually obtained a SAG disability pension. Five years later, she submitted an application to convert her disability pension to an ‘occupational disability pension’ in order to receive the additional benefit of health coverage.
And that’s when the SAG Pension Plan began its shoddy investigation of her case, and ordered her to pay back $123,827, plus interest – which prompted Hoffman to sue in the first place.
“The record here reveals numerous factual disputes not addressed by the
District Court in either the summary judgment order or the court’s findings of fact,” the appellate court ruled. “On remand, the District Court must address these outstanding factual questions, which will bear upon the degree of skepticism with which the district judge reviews the Plans’ decision to deny Hoffman’s claim for benefits.”