EXCLUSIVE: Former stuntwoman Leslie Hoffman has won her 11-year legal ordeal with the SAG Pension Plan and the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan, receiving a $125,000 settlement and an acknowledgement that she is entitled, at long last, to receive the occupational disability pension that she’s been fighting for all these years. As part of the settlement, she’ll also receive lifetime health coverage. The Plans, which also are on the hook for her attorney’s fees, made “no admission of liability” in settling the case, however, and have “denied every allegation of wrongdoing” contained in her complaints.
“I’m glad it’s over,” she told Deadline, “and I hope that this settlement makes it easier for all stunt performers – and all SAG-AFTRA members – to obtain the benefits they’re entitled to.”
$4 Billion SAG Pension Plan ‘In Good Financial Health,’ Officials Say
Hoffman, who’s now running in the union’s upcoming election for a seat on the Los Angeles Local’s board of directors, was once among Hollywood’s elite stuntwomen: She doubled as Queen Elizabeth II in a slide down a 40-foot banquet table with Leslie Nielson on top of her in The Naked Gun; crashed into the back of a truck atop a motorcycle sidecar in Steven Spielberg’s 1941; and leapt off the Love Boat, falling 78 feet into the cold waters of Los Angeles Harbor. And she’s been twice diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury that she says was the result of not just one head injury but the many concussions she’d sustained during her many years of stunt work.
In the 1980s, she became the first stuntwoman elected to the SAG Hollywood board of directors, and later to AFTRA’s Hollywood and national boards. But by 2002, she couldn’t work anymore, and the next year Hoffman suffered a nervous breakdown. In 2003, she was admitted for psychiatric treatment on three occasions and was ultimately diagnosed with “severe major depression.”
The next year, the Social Security Administration awarded her disability benefits due to her depression, noting that she also suffered from a “severe” and “degenerative” back injury. Dr. J. Michael Uszler, a top expert in the field, concluded that she had sustained a traumatic brain injury “most commonly clinically associated with head injury.”
Dr. Jeffrey Salberg, who she’d been seeing for years, wrote in 2011 that 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 have 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.”
In 2004, the SAG Plans gave her a disability pension — but only for her depression, not for any lasting injuries 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. And that’s when her legal ordeal began.
In order to qualify for an occupational disability benefit, she had to show that she suffered from a total disability that occurred in the course of employment covered by the Plan. But the Plan trustees weren’t buying it, and in 2010, denied her request to modify her existing $952 monthly Disability Pension into an Occupational Disability Pension – and the lifetime health care coverage it provides – after determining that her disability from severe major depression was not linked to her stunt work.
In 2010, following an unsuccessful administrative appeal, she sued the SAG Pension & Health Plan, challenging its conclusion that her ‘total disability’ was not caused by her work. Her suit, filed in U.S. District Court, was dismissed, but she then appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and ordered Plan administrators to reconsider her case because they hadn’t follow their own rules – or the law.
Her case, now settled, had been bouncing around in the courts ever since, landing in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals three times, where Hoffman prevailed each time – most recently last March. Ruling in her favor, Circuit Court judges Andrew Kleinfeld, Richard Tallman and John Owens noted that the case “has a tortured history and is now on its fourth district judge and its third panel of circuit judges,” repeatedly referring to the “curious facts” and the “unusual posture” of the case.
You can see her last hearing before the Ninth Circuit, held prior to the settlement, here.
In 2015, while the case was still pending, the Plans alleged that Hoffman had actually worked – and had held herself out for work – while collecting her disability benefits, which is prohibited. After a slipshod investigation, the Plans ordered her to repay the $123,827.50 in benefits she’d received over a 13-year period, plus another $8,457.72 in interest on those payments – but she doesn’t have to repay any of that either.
As it turns out, the Plans knew all along that she never worked under the union’s jurisdiction while disabled. In fact, the Plans’ own records, obtained by Deadline, show that she has had no SAG earnings at all, except residuals, since 2001. (SAG and AFTRA merged in 2012, and the SAG Health Plan merged with the AFTRA Health Fund four years later, but the SAG Pension Plan and the AFTRA Retirement Fund remain separate to this day.)
Documents obtained by Deadline show that early on, Plan officials were concerned that giving her full occupational disability benefits could open the floodgates to similar claims from other stuntmen and women who had become disabled by cumulative injuries sustained over the course of their careers.
“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,” a SAG Pension & Health trustee said at her disability hearing on June 18, 2010. “And I think if we were to go down this road, we would be opening ourselves to a lot of claims.”
“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,” wrote Plans COO Christopher Dowdell in a June 4, 2010, email about her case. “I don’t believe in this case that she has proven that her disability is really occupational.”
In that same email, Dowdell, who two years later would become the head of the SAG Pension & Health Plans after its CEO, Bruce Dow, resigned in disgrace amid allegations of nepotism and fraud, wrote that Hoffman should be denied SAG health coverage because the Plans had determined that her disability had nothing to do with her years of stunt work.
Dowdell, who retired from the Plans in 2014, came to that conclusion knowing full well that the Plans’ own medical director had already stated that he believed that her disability may have been caused, at least in part, by her years of dangerous stunt work.
“Our basis for denial on this is essentially she has been certified as totally disabled due to her psychiatric illness and not any occupational injury,” Dowdell wrote in the email to Plan attorneys Mark Hess and Michelle Stimson. “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.”
During this time, Michael Chavez, who was the director of the Plan’s pension department, alerted the administrators that the Plan’s own rules may have required them to grant her request for health benefits based on an accumulation of injuries over her career, and not just because of one specific career-ending injury.
“I do want to discuss Michael’s question in regards to cumulative injury over the course of a career vs. a specific injury that happened on a specific day and time,” Dowdell wrote in his email. “Does the interpretation of the Pension Plan’s rule include that this could be a result of years of cumulative injuries? That wasn’t how I first read it, but I am thinking that it could be interpreted that way.”
And yet, despite that, and despite the opinion of the Plans’ own medical director, they denied her SAG health coverage on the grounds that her disability was not due to “any occupational injury.”
Her $125,000 settlement may not seem like much, but it’s about the most she could have gotten under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Under ERISA, plaintiffs can’t recover punitive damages or damages for pain and suffering – only the amount of benefits that they were actually entitled to receive.
“I got the best possible settlement that the law allows,” Hoffman said, calling her attorney, Charles Fleishman, “a miracle worker. He retired last year, but kept his license to see my case, which included three trips to the Ninth Circuit Court, through to the end.”
“Leslie was the victim of a judicial system that failed,” Fleishman told Deadline. “The first District Court judge dismissed the case despite the law. The second one refused to hear the case for no reason at all, and the third judge made up a reason to refuse to hear it. And the Ninth Circuit reversed all three of them.” Fleishman also noted that the settlement agreement contains no confidentiality provision.
Here’s the “Settlement and Release of Claims Agreement” between Hoffman and the Plans:
WHEREAS, in or about 2010, Mrs. Hoffman, as plaintiff, filed an action against the SAG-AFTRA Plans entitled Hoffman v. Screen Actors Guild Producers Pension Plan et al., in the United States District Court, Central District of California, Case No. 2:10-cv-06913-CJC-E. (“Hoffman I”) challenging the denial of her request to convert her disability pension to an occupational disability pension with corresponding future health coverage.
WHEREAS, in or about 2016, Mrs. Hoffman, as plaintiff, filed an action against the SAG-AFTRA Plans entitled Hoffman v. Screen Actors Guild Producers Pension Plan et al., in the United States District Court, Central District of California, Case No. 2:16-cv-01530-CJC-E. (“Hoffman II”) challenging only the retroactive termination of her disability pension benefits. (Hoffman I and Hoffman II collectively referred to as “Actions.”)
WHEREAS, the SAG-AFTRA Plans have denied every allegation of wrongdoing contained in Mrs. Hoffman’s complaints in Actions.
WHEREAS, the Parties desire to resolve the Actions without further litigation or adjudication.
NOW, THEREFORE, in consideration of the promises and obligations set forth in this Agreement, the Parties agree as follows:
1. NO ADMISSION OF LIABILITY. Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed to be an admission by the SAG-AFTRA Plans of any wrongdoing or noncompliance with any federal, state, city or local rule, ordinance, constitution, statute, contract, public policy, wage payment law, tort law, common law, or any other unlawful conduct.
2. PAYMENT AND OTHER BENEFITS. In consideration of Leslie Hoffman’s entering into this Agreement, the SAG-AFTRA Plans agree to provide the following benefits to Mrs. Hoffman:
a. A payment of $125,000, in full satisfaction of all amounts including, but not limited to, unreimbursed health claims, that Leslie Hoffman has or may claim to have against the SAG-AFTRA Plans (exclusive of any right to attorney fees, as set forth in item d, below), such amount to be paid within 30 days of the execution of this Agreement.
b. Leslie Hoffman is determined to be entitled to an Occupational disability pension, with all rights and benefits related thereto, applied retroactively from the date on which she first filed for such status.
c. The SAG-AFTRA Plans will provide the name of the individual who signed the February 6, 2016 letter to MLS within 5 days after the execution of this Agreement.
d. Counsel for Leslie Hoffman, Charles Fleishman, shall be entitled to make any proper motion for attorney fees and the SAG-AFTRA Plans are entitled to respond with any proper opposition. In other words, this Agreement neither expands nor limits any claims or defenses to attorney fees.
3. TAXES. Mrs. Hoffman agrees and acknowledges that the SAG-AFTRA Plans and its counsel have not made any representations to Leslie Hoffman regarding the tax consequences of any payments or amounts received by Leslie Hoffman under this Agreement, and she remains solely liable for the payment of any taxes which are due and owing from her.
4. GENERAL RELEASE AND WAIVER OF CLAIMS. In exchange for the consideration provided by the SAG-AFTRA Plans in this Agreement, Leslie Hoffman, individually and on behalf of her heirs, executors, representatives, administrators, agents, and assigns (collectively the “Releasors.”) irrevocably and unconditionally fully and forever waives, releases, and discharges the SAG-AFTRA Plans, including parents, subsidiaries, affiliates, predecessors, successors, and assigns, and each of its and their respective agents, officers, directors, employees, trustees, attorneys and partners in their corporate and individual capacities (collectively, the “Released Parties”) from any and all claims, demands, actions, causes of actions, judgments, rights, fees, damages, debts, obligations, liabilities and expenses of any kind whatsoever, whether known or unknown (collectively, “Claims”), that the Releasors may have or have ever had against the Released Parties, or any of them, by reason of any actual or alleged act, omission, transaction, practice, conduct, occurrence, or other matter from the beginning of time up to an including the date of Leslie Hoffman’s execution of this Agreement, except for: a) any obligations set forth in this Agreement; and, b) attorney fees as set forth in Item 2(d) above.
5. WAIVER OF CIVIL CODE § 1542. This Agreement is intended to be effective as a general release of and bar to all claims as stated in Section 4. Additionally, the Releasors specifically waive the protections of California Civil Code Section 1542, which states: “A general release does not extend to claims that the creditor or releasing party does not know or suspect to exist in his or her favor at the time of executing the release and that, if known by his or her, would have materially affected his or her settlement with the debtor or released party.” Leslie Hoffman acknowledges that she may later discovery claims or fact in addition to or different from those which she now knows or believes to exist with regards to the subject matter of this Agreement, and which if known or suspected at the time of executing this Agreement, may have materially affected its terms. Nevertheless, the Releasors waive any and all claims that might arise as a result of such different or additional claims or facts.
6. ACTIONS WITHDRAWLS AND DISMISSAL. In exchange for the good and valuable consideration provided under Section 2 of this Agreement, Leslie Hoffman shall dismiss, with prejudice, Hoffman 1.
7. KNOWING AND VOLUNTARY ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. Leslie Hoffman specifically agrees and acknowledges that she has read this Agreement in its entirety and understands all of its terms. Leslie Hoffman further acknowledges that she has consulted her attorney before executing this Agreement, and she knowingly, freely, and voluntarily assents to all of the Agreement’s terms and conditions, including, without limitation, the waiver, release, confidentiality, and covenants contained in it. This Agreement is entered into and shall be interpreted solely under California law.