SAG Denies Hollywood Ex-Stuntwoman Her Due Benefits

SAG logoLeslie Hoffman has jumped off boats, fallen down stairs, and involved herself in more car crashes than she would like to remember. But when it comes to receiving compensation from her Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Pension and Health Plan, the former movie and TV stuntwoman can’t buy a break. A federal appeals court over a year ago ordered plan administrators to reconsider their denial of her injury claims, but she has yet to receive a dime. Articles in the June 18 and June 24 issues of Deadline Hollywood have highlighted her travails, noting her case may be a turning point in the way SAG and its affiliate union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), treat stunt performers. “It’s a disgrace,” says Hoffman’s lawyer, Charles Fleishman. “She worked her whole life, and then nobody wants to be bothered with her.”

Stunt work for movies and television, whether performed by featured actors or body doubles, requires a certain combination of courage and craziness. Car and helicopter crashes alone have been responsible for untold head and neck injuries. Dozens of deaths have occurred on sets over the decades. Not helping the situation is the fact that performers often are given insufficient time to rehearse a scene. In addition, they may be required to work from pre-dawn hours until well after dark, and under adverse weather conditions. Currently, annual pay is about $70,000 a year, though experienced performers can make quite a bit more. It’s a hell of a way to make a living. On the plus side, it makes for fascinating conversation.

Leslie Hoffman, a stuntwoman for a quarter-century until her retirement in 2002, has a lot to converse about. As Queen Elizabeth II, she slid down a 40-foot banquet table in the first Naked Gun film – with Leslie Nielsen lying on top of her. In the 1985 movie, Clue, she was held by her ankles and dropped on her head nine times before the director felt he had the right shot. In an episode of the TV show, The Love Boat, she fell nearly 80 feet into Los Angeles Harbor. And in Steven Spielberg’s 1979 alternative history spoof, 1941, she nearly lost her head, literally, crashing into the back of a truck while riding on a motorcycle sidecar. She worked in numerous episodes of the Star Trek TV series sequels Voyager and Deep Space Nine. As a woman in a predominantly man’s world, she worked long hours and took physical risks, from falls down flights of stairs to last-second leaps from rigged explosions. And despite her busy schedule, she found time to serve on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild and then AFTRA; the two unions eventually would merge in 2012.

Hoffman has been inactive for more than a dozen years. There’s a reason for that: Her body and mind are shot. She was admitted for psychiatric treatment on three occasions in 2003 and was ultimately diagnosed with “severe major depression.” Her problems were of a magnitude to be awarded disability benefits from the Social Security Administration the following year; the SSA later noted that she suffered from “severe” and “degenerative” back injury. Medical records show that Hoffman over the years has suffered from brain trauma, the product of numerous stunt-related head injuries. In 2011, Dr. Jeffrey Salberg, whom she had been seeing for years, explained her condition: “(Hoffman) remains disabled due to post-concussive syndrome as a result of multiple head injuries sustained as a result of her employment of being a stunt woman. She has had ongoing symptoms of the condition since I first began caring for her in 1998, and they’ve failed to improve after evaluation and treatment by specialists.” In 2012, he diagnosed her with “traumatic brain injury” and “severe back, neck, knee and shoulder injuries…due to continuous traumas throughout her stunt career.”

There wasn’t much doubt about it: Leslie Hoffman was physically wrecked. While the Social Security Administration could admit as much, the Screen Actors Guild Pension and Health Plan (“the Plan”), legally separate from the union itself, couldn’t. In 2004, she received a disability pension, but only for depression, not lasting injuries. Five years later, in 2009, she appealed to the Plan to convert her depression disability payments into occupational disability payments, so as to be eligible for health coverage. Administrators refused her request. This triggered a bitter legal battle. A federal district court dismissed her case. Hoffman appealed – and won. Determining that she had not been given a fair hearing, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in April 2014 that plan administrators had to allow her additional time to present her case. The court wrote: “Hoffman worked as a stunt actress in motion pictures, but ceased work…because of a variety of physical injuries…We conclude that the district court erred in dismissing Hoffman’s claim on summary judgment because she is entitled to a second medical opinion and a fully developed record resulting therefrom. Accordingly, we reverse and remand.”

Hoffman then presented the Plan with the results from two separate SPECT (Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography) scan tests revealing clear evidence of traumatic brain injury. Yet the Plan continued to deny her health plan benefits. Ms. Hoffman’s attorney, Charles Fleishman, believes the people running the SAG benefits plan are hiding the facts. He stated:

The SPECT scan shows traumatic brain damage. She had a history, as a stunt worker, of falling on her head repeatedly. The stunt work ruined her physically. The Plan sent her file out to two doctors for another evaluation, who concluded there’s no physical cause for her disability. They denied her claim again. In the synopsis of their reports, they don’t even mention the brain scan test, which was positive for brain trauma. And the Plan refused to say who those doctors were or to show us copies of their reports. Neither one of them examined her. We have never seen the doctors or been told who they are. All they gave us was a synopsis of what the two doctors supposedly said. We made repeated requests and they refuse to tell us.

Facts being inconvenient things, SAG plan administrators concluded Hoffman’s injuries were not job-related and thus did not qualify for health benefits. Worse yet, because she had requested health benefits, they reopened her entire case. Plan managers proceeded to examine her web page and IMDb (Internet Movie Database) in hopes of proving she had engaged in gainful employment and thus had falsely claimed to be disabled. The search led to a pair of “discoveries”: Hoffman had worked as a stunt coordinator on a Star Trek fan web-based short, “Starship Farragut,” and served as a fight coordinator for a 12-minute University of Southern California student-produced and directed short, “Dead Ballerina.” In neither instance did she either perform or receive pay. Yet SAG benefits officers were convinced they had the smoking gun revealing Hoffman to be falsely claiming disability. Their response was sheer overkill. Not only did they deny Hoffman health-related payments, they demanded that she return the more than $123,000 she had received for her depression coverage, plus interest. What’s more, if she didn’t pay the money back, she would have it deducted from future pension payouts.

Thanks to investigative reporting by Deadline Hollywood, however, SAG plan officers revealed themselves to be possessed of less than objective motives. According to an internal e-mail and minutes of a June 18, 2010 SAG Pension and Health trustee meeting concerning Hoffman’s disability claim, attendees displayed a prejudicial attitude toward her. Here’s how one female trustee put it, throwing in a classic Freudian slip:

I appreciate that she has been damaged, but when I look at her list of all the things that are wrong with her, all those things are wrong with me too, and I don’t claim disability. And not because I have done stunts, but because I have done stupid athletic shit all my life…She is getting a disability pension and she is getting Medicare. So although I would like to hurt her, not help her…

The transcript at that point noted “Room breaks out in loud laughter.” When the laughter subsided, another trustee amplified the previous speaker view: “I am going to simply agree.” Hey, maybe the trustees really do want to hurt her. Tellingly, the minutes of that meeting also revealed a fear among trustees that by granting Hoffman’s claim, the Plan could be opening the door to hundreds if not thousands of other claims by disabled stunt performers. Here’s how one trustee put it: “What I fear is if you were to grant this to Leslie Hoffman, you would – and if it got out, which I’m sure it would – you would have a lot of claims from a lot of performers who worked a lot more on a regular basis and probably suffered a lot more harmful events than Leslie did.” To which one might respond: What exactly is wrong with that?

Two weeks before the meeting, in fact, in a June 4, 2010 e-mail, SAG Plan Chief Operating Officer Christopher Dowdell anticipated this fear. His message read: “My concern is that this could open the door for much of the stunt community to qualify for an occupational disability pension when that was not the case. I don’t believe in this case that she has proven that her disability is really occupational.” Dowdell changed his tune somewhat, however, once he became plan CEO, replacing longtime head Bruce Dow, who had resigned in 2012 under a cloud of suspicion of fraud (see here and here). In an e-mail to Plan attorneys Mark Hess and Michelle Stimson, Dowdell wrote: “Our basis for denial on this is essentially she (Hoffman) has been certified as totally disabled due to her psychiatric illness and not any occupational injury. We did get some additional information which prompted our medical director to opine that her disability may be partially related to her injuries sustained as a stuntwoman.” Now he tells us.

A lot of money is at stake. SAG pension and health plans, respectively, cover 9,000 and 40,000 beneficiaries, and have asset portfolios of $3 billion and $300 million. Christopher Dowdell stepped down as CEO early in 2014, to be replaced by another Plan official, Michael Estrada. Regardless of who is in charge, it would be hard to deny SAG has done Leslie Hoffman a wrong turn. If she prevails, her case could trigger many similar ones. Such an outcome would be overdue. Stuntmen put their lives on the line to make action scenes look effortlessly real. These scenes shouldn’t be taken for granted. Stunt work is dangerous. The people involved deserve full compensation for traumatic injuries.