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Facts of the Coppedge Lawsuit Contradict the Spin from Jet Propulsion Lab and National Center for Science Education

Here in Los Angeles, the opening of David Coppedge v. Jet Propulsion Lab passed today primarily with oral arguments before Judge Hiroshige on what types of evidence will be presented, and who will be allowed to act as a witness. The judge decided, for example, not to hear from an expert on the larger context of anti-ID discrimination in academia.

In general, Coppedge's former employer sought to suppress the fullest airing of information, and surprisingly even argued for an option to exclude media -- print and video -- from the courtroom, a move the judge naturally dismissed. JPL also opposed a request that the judge view the pro-ID DVDs that are at the heart of the case, but the judge decided that one in favor of Coppedge and will view the films.

All this matters, of course, for factual findings and the ultimate verdict, and for establishing the record in case of appeal. It frames the way the trial proceeds. JPL's legal teams appears to feel the less the judge and the public know about the case, the better for their side, whereas Coppedge's attorney, William Becker, follows the philosophy that the more information available, the better.

That was the day's legal wrestlings in a nutshell. This surely says something about the degree to which, win or lose, JPL actually has justice on its side. Opening statements will begin Tuesday at 10 AM. Which gives us an opportunity this evening to reflect on how the case is being spun by Darwin lobbyists and by JPL.

In an Associated Press story on the Coppedge trial, Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education comments:

"It would be unfortunate if the court took what seems to be a fairly straightforward employment law case and allowed it to become this tangled mess of trying to adjudicate scientific matters," said Josh Rosenau, NCSE's programs and policy director. "It looks like a pretty straightforward case. The mission that he was working on was winding down and he was laid off."
Let's get this straight. According to the NCSE, Coppedge was terminated simply because his job was "winding down and he was laid off." Rosenau suggests JPL's actions against Coppedge had nothing to do with intelligent design and were therefore entirely uninteresting and inert.

But Rosenau leaves out an important detail: Before Coppedge was fired, he was demoted and punished -- and this happened precisely because he was talking with colleagues about intelligent design. The evidence in the case is unmistakable on that point. Consider this exchange between Coppedge and his supervisor at JPL, Clark Burgess, on April 15 and 16, 2009:

Query from David Coppedge to Clark Burgess: "Per our meeting this afternoon, I just wanted to be sure I didn't misconstrue what you told me. Is it correct to say that the allegation of harassment was limited to the activity of my handing out DVDs on intelligent design to coworkers, and that if I had not done that as to anyone here in the building, I would still be in good standing? (i.e., I would not have been investigated or gotten the written warning)? Or would you word it some other way? I just want to be crystal clear I was not being investigated/reprimanded for some other activity, personal flaw or deficiency in job performance." (See Declaration of William J. Becker, Jr. Re: Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion in Limine #1, Exhibits, p. 13)

Reply from Clark Burgess: "I believe the investigation was triggered by the discussion you had with Greg [Chin] on April 13th, when he demanded you stop passing out DVDs and discussing them in the workplace. When I first conversed with HR, they mentioned they were going to conduct an investigation based on that encounter. Whatever else they may have found, I do not believe entered into their decision to generate the written warning. It's my belief, if that incidence had not happened HR would not have been contacted and the written warning would not have been generated." (See Declaration of William J. Becker, Jr. Re: Plaintiff's Opposition to Defendant's Motion in Limine #1, Exhibits, p. 13)

(Burgess accidentally gives the wrong date for when Greg Chin "demanded you stop passing out DVDs." The actual date was March 2, 2009.)

This clearly shows that Coppedge's demotion and punishment had everything to do with his lending intelligent design DVDs to co-workers, and in fact had nothing to do with anything else.

Even JPL admits that the demotion had to do with Coppedge's conversations at work. The AP story reports:

In an emailed statement, JPL dismissed Coppedge's claims. In court papers, lawyers for the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, said Coppedge received a written warning because his co-workers complained of harassment. They also said Coppedge lost his "team lead" status because of ongoing conflicts with others.
While the facts are different from what JPL says, this shows that JPL itself concedes that actions were taken against Coppedge that had nothing to do with the "mission that he was working on ... winding down."

Indeed, as we expect Coppedge's case will show, no one at JPL had complained of "harassment" against him until after Coppedge himself filed a harassment claim. Coppedge filed that harassment claim because on March 2, 2009, a JPL mid-level manager named Greg Chin yelled at Coppedge, ordered him to stop "pushing religion," and told him to stop talking about intelligent design. No one ever stepped forward and proactively filed a harassment complaint against Coppedge for his conversations about ID. Rather, he was targeted by administrators who disliked his pro-ID views.

Not a Benign Layoff

NCSE's Josh Rosenau makes Coppedge's termination sound like a benign layoff. This is standard NCSE spin. But Coppedge's demotion, which had everything to do with ID, was a prelude to his firing; that demotion was part of an orchestrated campaign to get rid of him, a campaign that started nearly two years before the final termination. As a brief from Coppedge's attorneys (which is listed on the NCSE's own website) states:

Documents recently produced by JPL reveal for the first time in this case that, responsive to the March 2 incident and HR's investigation, Cassini management sought Coppedge's immediate removal from the space program and was pulling his funding "due to" his "conduct" and "interpersonal communications issues." (p. 1)
Coppedge wasn't fired until January 2011. But internal JPL e-mails show JPL management already wanted to fire Coppedge from the Cassini project back in 2009, around the time Greg Chin first yelled at him for discussing ID at work. So here's a key question: If Coppedge was fired simply because his program was "winding down," then why did JPL management write e-mails about getting rid of him almost 2 years earlier--right after he was disciplined for talking about intelligent design--"due to" his "conduct" and "interpersonal communications issues"?

Of course Coppedge's "conduct" and "interpersonal communications issues" is how JPL management spun their distaste for Coppedge sharing intelligent design DVDs with coworkers. In short, because of Coppedge's pro-ID views, JPL didn't want him around. Coppedge's brief explains this in more detail:

After Chin's eruption had prompted an HR investigation into Coppedge's behavior in March 2009, Chin briefed Cassini's program manager, Bob Mitchell, on the matter and turned to him for direction. Mitchell told Chin it was his problem and that he should fix it. After having thrown the book at Coppedge for pushing his religion, Chin's solution was to remove Coppedge from the Cassini program. Chin advised Clark Burgess, Coppedge's group supervisor, of his decision. On Friday, April 3, Burgess carried that decision to HR generalist Jhertaune Huntley, advising her that Cassini management wanted Coppedge removed from the space program "as soon as possible." The following Tuesday, April 7, Burgess met with Huntley and HR generalist Nancy Aguilera. He repeated that Cassini wanted Coppedge "off the project," adding that Cassini was pulling Coppedge's funding "due to his conduct/interpersonal communication issues."

Burgess advised the HR generalists that he was unable to find work for Coppedge and wanted him laid off. HR explained to Burgess that because work remained available on the Cassini project, "layoff [was] not an option." However, to appease Burgess and Cassini management (Chin/Mitchell), HR devised a "strategy" calculated to marginalize and diminish Coppedge's role within Cassini and ultimately to end his JPL career. HR's "strategy" included: (1) issuing a written warning "for inappropriate conduct / harassment"; (2) removing Coppedge as the team lead; (3) monitoring Coppedge "to ensure no further incidents"; and (4) recording "conduct/communication issues" as part of Coppedge's annual performance evaluations ("ECAPS"). (p. 2) (emphases in original brief)

Way back in April 2009, just after Greg Chin got so upset at Coppedge for discussing ID at work, Chin and other Cassini managers were scheming to have Coppedge fired from the Cassini program -- not because the project was "winding down" but "due to his conduct/interpersonal communication issues." In fact, it seems that JPL management wanted to fire him back in April 2009, but were prevented from doing so by HR because there was still work for Coppedge to do at that time, and they couldn't get away with firing him.

Of course what they consider to be "conduct/interpersonal communication issues" are just trumped up charges of harassment. All Coppedge did was offer intelligent design DVDs to co-workers. So it seems that the ultimate motive for firing Coppedge was his undisguised support for ID.

Even the Court ruled that a "trier of fact" could conclude that Coppedge's discussion of ID led to his termination:

A trier of fact could also view the events of March 2, 2009, as triggering a string of adverse employment actions leading up to Plaintiff's termination. As to the retaliation claims, the temporal proximity between Plaintiff's claim of a "hostile work environment" in March 2009 and his demotion in April 2009 support a prima facia case. Especially given the evidence of earlier adverse actions, Plaintiff's termination eight months after the filing of his complaint also supports a prima facie case. (Court's Ruling on Motion for Summary Judgment, November 18, 2011, p. 2.)
So here's the basic timeline:

  • Pre-March 2009: David Coppedge lends intelligent design DVDs to coworkers, all in an entirely undisruptive manner.

  • March 2, 2009: mid-level manager Greg Chin learned that Coppedge was sharing these ID DVDs, became upset at Coppedge, yelled at him, ordered him to stop "pushing religion" and to stop talking about intelligent design.

  • Coppedge felt singled out and harassed by Chin, and he expressed this to his supervisor. Coppedge later learned that JPL's human-resources department had started investigating the matter. But the investigation took a turn that Coppedge never expected. He was now the target of an investigation charging him with harassment. On April 13, 2009, this investigation culminated with Coppedge being reprimanded and demoted for what JPL labeled "unwelcome" and "disruptive" behavior.

  • E-mail records show that in early April 2009, Cassini management -- egged on by Greg Chin and supported by others such as Bob Mitchell and Clark Burgess -- agreed that Coppedge needed to be removed from the Cassini project precisely because of his discussions about ID. They wanted to get rid of Coppedge at that time, but couldn't do so because it would look too suspicious. Instead, they demoted him so they could more easily justify getting rid of him later.

  • Coppedge was ultimately fired in January 2011, and JPL was finally rid of him -- something they had wanted to do for almost two years.

Josh Rosenau is right about one thing: this case should be a "fairly straightforward employment law case" and no one is asking the court to "adjudicate scientific matters." David Coppedge was harassed, demoted, and ultimately fired simply for expressing his personal views on intelligent design at work in a non-disruptive fashion. The court doesn't have to agree (or disagree) with intelligent design to decide that Coppedge faced illegal discrimination.