The saga of Leslie Hoffman has been one of cuts, bruises, concussions and brain scans. And those may be the least of her problems right now. Hoffman, a retired movie and TV stuntwoman, for the last several years has been rebuffed by her union in repeated attempts to secure medical reimbursement for head, neck and other injuries she sustained in action sequences. The gatekeepers are officers of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) health and retirement plan who seem bent on creating an inexhaustible list of pretexts on which to deny benefits in the face of her palpably damaged condition. Recent evidence in Ms. Hoffman’s lawsuit against the union suggests these roadblocks to receiving benefits in part are motivated by retaliation for her outspoken views on behalf of fellow stunt performers while serving as a member of the SAG executive board starting around the mid-Eighties.
Union Corruption Update covered this running battle back in July 2015. For about 25 years, Leslie Hoffman was well-known in the stunt community, especially as she was a woman. She appeared in films such as The Naked Gun, 1941, Nightmare on Elm Street and Clue, and television programs such as The Love Boat, Remington Steele and Deep Space Nine. The experiences took a physical toll. In 2003, the year following her retirement, she was admitted for psychiatric treatment on three occasions. Further diagnoses concluded that she suffered from “severe” and “degenerative” back injury. Worse yet was brain trauma. 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 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.” The next year, 2012, he diagnosed her with “traumatic brain injury” and “severe back, neck, knee and shoulder injuries…due to continuous traumas throughout her stunt career.”
Leslie Hoffman, in other words, is in a predicament similar to that of retired National Football League players afflicted with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The NFL, faced with hundreds of lawsuits by players and/or family members, in 2013 reached a settlement with plaintiffs’ attorneys in which the league, though without admitting liability, would contribute $765 million to a special fund. However, concerns by the presiding judge as well as plaintiffs’ attorneys kept the case from being finalized until last year when the NFL and the players settled for about $1 billion. Stunt people have not had this kind of advocacy, but it has not been for want of trying. Hoffman, now 63, a native of Saranac Lake, N.Y., began receiving a disability pension in 2004 that covered depression but not on-the-job physical injury. In 2009, she appealed to the SAG Pension and Health Plan to convert her depression disability into an occupational one. Plan administrators turned down her request. Hoffman responded by filing suit in federal court. She lost at the district level but won a procedural reversal on appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court in April 2014. Plan administrators, the court ruled, must allow her extra time to present her case, as she was “entitled to a second medical opinion and a fully developed record resulting therefrom.” The court remanded the case to the district level.
The developed record, especially in the form of a pair of SPECT (Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging scans, showed clear evidence of traumatic brain injury. Yet SAG plan administrators continued to deny Ms. Hoffman her due health benefits. Her attorney, Charles Fleishman, accused the administrators of hiding facts. In fact, they did not identify the two doctors who evaluated her condition. Nor did they show copies of the doctors’ reports. In their haste to dispense with the case, plan officials concluded that her injuries were not job-related. Additionally, they reopened her existing depression-related case, gaining access to her web page and her IMDb (Internet Movie Database) in hopes of finding evidence that she had worked while claiming to be disabled. SAG investigators found that she had worked as a stunt coordinator on a Star Trek fan web-based short film and as a fight coordinator for a University of Southern California film student short. In neither case did she perform or receive pay. Yet the Screen Actors Guild benefit maestros not only denied her occupational injury benefits, but also demanded that she return nearly $125,000 in depression benefits or have the money deducted from future pension payouts.
It was a Hobson’s choice. But fortunately Hoffman found some help in the form of investigative reporting from the entertainment industry blogsite Deadline Hollywood. Researchers there dug into internal emails and the minutes of a pair of June 2010 SAG Pension and Health Plan trustee meetings. At one meeting then-SAG Plan Chief Operating Officer Christopher Dowdell inadvertently revealed the trustees’ underlying fear: “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.” The federal district judge who reviewed the case on remand, Manuel Real, was of no help to Hoffman. In December 2016, he dismissed both of her cases before she even could get a hearing. This caused Hoffman to sell her home and possessions in hopes of affording the legal help needed for another hearing. And that might take up to two years. SAG benefit officials already had taken away her disability pension the previous year.
Running out of options, Hoffman took her case to Congress. She met with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y. and a staffer for Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on March 22, 2017, as part of Brain Injury Awareness Day, a project of the Brain Injury Association of America. During that time, she also wrote a letter to her local newspaper, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, in which she noted:
I should have received Occupational Disability and health from the SAG-Producers Pension and Health Plan (because I was injured as a stuntwoman on the job – continuous trauma like the NFL Players), but in the early 2000s only received a Disability Pension. Because I asked for something that they did not want the Stunt Community to know about, they denied me and I had to sue. That made me a ‘whistleblower.’ My case was turned down by the first Judge and then overturned by the higher court…The (second) lower court judge then decided that maybe I was never disabled in the first place and with that the Health Plan took away my Disability Pension payment and demanded that I repay them back over $130,000.
Now broke, Hoffman can’t afford a lawyer. This is especially disturbing given that she has a strong case. Evidence from the SAG plan’s own records undermine the claim that she worked while receiving disability pay. Unfortunately, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), the 1974 federal law that defines private-sector pension fiduciary duties, gives SAG benefit plan trustees and administrators virtually unlimited authority to set eligibility requirements for benefit claims. And in the area of occupational disability, claimants have to meet all, not just a few, conditions. The bar defining “total disability” is set high precisely so that few can clear it. As Hoffman wrote NLPC in an email this March 24: “The Plan’s Staff and Trustees can supersede the Federal Government. So based on bias and retaliation (not medical proof), they can take away or deny a Member AND they can give themselves Pension and Health in the Senior category even though they do not qualify under their own rules.”
This factor is aggravated by the union and the union benefit plan, which though legally separate, operate virtually as the same thing. Current SAG/AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) National Executive Director David White is a high-powered attorney for the union and a trustee for the benefit plan (the SAG and AFTRA plans merged on January 1, 2017). Current SAG Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland has broad oversight over benefits. Dissenters, like former Vice President Bob Carlson, are likely to be canned; according to various sources Carlson lost his job when he objected to the pending SAG/AFTRA merger of 2012.
A number of the people in recent years who have run the SAG-AFTRA pension and health fund, whose representation is split evenly between industry and union people, are corrupt. Former SAG benefits CEO Bruce Dow resigned under pressure in April 2012 amid charges that he and several associates had embezzled anywhere from $5 million to $10 million; ex-SAG plan chief information officer Nader Karimi pleaded guilty in November 2015 to tax fraud based on over $700,000 in unreported income; and an AFTRA retirement fund executive and vendor, respectively, Enrico Rubano and Shivanand Maharaj, were arrested and charged in January 2017 with fleecing the fund out of $3.4 million. Even when operating within the law, benefit plan bosses appear more concerned with covering their tracks than standing up for the interests of dues-paying members. They, like Leslie Hoffman, know that serious money is at stake.