Getting to "You're Fired": The Final Days of an Intelligent Design Advocate at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab
Whether you prefer to say senior computer specialist David Coppedge was "fired" or "laid off" -- these are legal terms of art -- he lost his job in January 2011 in an apparent act of retaliation by JPL upper management after he filed suit against his employer in April 2010. An employer seeking revenge on an employee who tries to protect his legal rights to free expression is itself, under California law, illegal.
This is the other half of Coppedge's complaint, currently being heard by Judge Ernest Hiroshige of the California Superior Court in Los Angeles. The first part, as I discussed earlier, centers on what he describes convincingly as his having been demoted the previous year for exercising that right of religious and political expression, despite fine work reviews. We've already looked at most of those reviews -- but I left the final one he received, the most damning for JPL's defense, for last.
The demotion, as you recall, came about in a chain of events beginning with one colleague's complaint to supervisor Greg Chin about pro-intelligent design DVDs that Coppedge was quietly sharing with others.
After the ID hit the fan, Chin shouted at Coppedge and warned him to desist ("Stop pushing your religion!"). He emailed colleagues that "I informed [Coppedge] that Intelligent Design (ID) is a personal belief that should be kept to himself unless invited by other to discuss." Chin followed this up by contributing a long nasty comment to Coppedge's April 2009 ECAP (Employee Contribution Assessment and Planning), a yearly report card on job performance.
There's no indication that Coppedge disregarded the veiled threat. He kept his mouth shut about ID after that. But he didn't receive the demotion with passive acceptance. And that is what really spelled his doom, so cruelly delivered on a man approaching retirement, at JPL.
You can tell all this from a pattern of circumstantial evidence. JPL's management was, of course, canny in how they went about it. They met with attorneys in March-April 2010, and depositions and emails show that Coppedge's lawsuit was under discussion along with the question of how to handle this now "at risk" employee in a cunning, lawyerly fashion.
We can't know what exactly was said in those meetings, since they're protected by attorney-client privilege, but a reasonable person can infer by reading Coppedge's final ECAP review, which covers this time and is dated August 2010. I said the other day that Coppedge's previous job-performance evaluations were all terrific leading right up to the day in March 2009 when Greg Chin yelled at him for "pushing" intelligent design.
His next ECAP was worrying, with the ominous comment from Chin. But the very last one, after he filed suit, is even more hair-raising. It shows Coppedge's supervisors and colleagues with (almost) all their knives out for him. You can guess the recipe for a dish of food by tasting it. In the same way, though we can't hear the lawyers' recommendations on how to get rid of this guy, we can infer by considering the results.
Going back to 2003 when he first started receiving ECAP reviews, 14-year-veteran Coppedge had been "truly appreciated" for his "great job" and "special service," his "appropriate verbal and written communication skills," establishing "effective working relationships." Now another supervisor, Clark Burgess, had collected and reproduced in dense, small type a series of wounding critiques from co-workers, named and unnamed.
A colleague identified as N. Patel "observed [Coppedge] spending quite a bit of time doing personal work during day time, while tasks were waiting to be done. He seems to be spending lots of time typing a document on his PC that seems to be a personal document...This has created a morale issue within the team." How Patel knew it was personal work, something Coppedge denied, is left unaddressed.
Someone else criticized a presentation Coppedge made as "unprofessional compared to products generated by other SAs [System Administrators], and did not aid the project.... To spend so much time researching the task, and then to convey the information using sketches on a whiteboard, was not what was expected."
Burgess cited "Other Input" on Coppedge, including "sloppy mistakes that several of the other SAs had to fix or resolve his errors. Most of the errors were characterized as something a junior SA would have done, not a senior SA." Burgess noted "inaccurate record keeping," "not responding to emails in a timely fashion," "difficulty in working with people," "loss of confidence in David's performance," Coppedge's "brusque personality," his "not owning up to making mistakes," and more.
Maybe Coppedge was really as bad as all that, you wonder? Well, JPL had already treated him in a punitive and controlling fashion that hardly seems likely to bring out an employee's best work. But if he was screwing up left and right, it's difficult to account for the glowing assessment he received in that very same ECAP review from one colleague (J. Brown) who praises his technical and personal performance to the sky.
Brown calls him "a great asset to the Program," someone who "should be in the group," going "above and beyond the scope" of his responsibilities, managing time skillfully, doing "meticulous," "painstaking" work, worthy of one's "full confidence," a "very approachable person" as "reflected in his personality and interpersonal relationships" with co-workers.
The document includes a few pained and painful comments from Coppedge himself, such as a poignant remark that "I often arrive earlier and leave later than most people in the building." To this, in the box just down from it, Burgess shoots back: "The fact that he comes in earlier and stays later than most people in the building doesn't necessarily indicate he's doing the best job."
When he signed the document at the bottom, on August 3, 2010, Coppedge appended a brief handwritten note pointing out, "I do not feel the specific incidents mentioned provide a true sample of my work habits and in some cases turn positives into negatives." The ECAP review, for example, holds against him that he acted as a tour guide around the JPL facility for inner-city high-school students -- something that his own managers had earlier regarded favorably but now criticized as "tak[ing] away from his [System Administrator] tasks."
Coppedge observes: "The circumstances behind the sudden negatives here after years of positive reviews strike me as strange."
Strange is the right word. As he's depicted in that 2010 performance review, it is as if Coppedge has undergone a total personality and work-style transformation all for the worse -- except when operating in the vicinity of J. Brown, when he admittedly shines just as he did before. Either something like this peculiar, implausible profile is the case, or someone was gathering all the uncomplimentary things anyone had ever said or could be persuaded to say about Coppedge, for the purpose of generating a pretext -- many pretexts -- for axing him.
If it were simply a matter of downsizing in a shrinking economy, or reduced staffing due to mission wind-down, as they claim now, JPL could have simply let Coppedge go without the exercise in smearing him. JPL employed Coppedge "at will," with no contractual stipulation that protected him from being terminated in the absence of a cause. California law, however, is intended to shield an employee like him from being punished for his religious views, real or perceived, and from being terminated for seeking to exercise and vindicate his own rights under the law.
No one has presented any evidence or any other reason to think Coppedge underwent a personality metamorphosis in his final days at NASA's JPL. Common sense leads us, overwhelmingly, to the conclusion that he was being targeted not for his job performance but for what he had done to exercise his rights of expression.
Beyond that, my goodness, what a poisonous bunch of sour government bureaucrats and petty tyrants Coppedge worked with. And we haven't even discussed the Human Resources "investigation" yet!
Given that Coppedge had enviable reviews up until the 2009 ID incident with Chin, it seems obvious that JPL collected negative evaluations for the purpose of justifying the retaliatory act of sacking of him. Talking about intelligent design is what got him demoted. Protesting that treatment is what cost him his job.