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Into the Bureaucratic Nightmare of "Human Resources": How JPL's Investigation Denied Fairness and Due Process to David Coppedge

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On Monday in the David Coppedge v. Jet Propulsion Lab trial, Jhertaune Huntley finished her testimony. She was the Human Resources (HR) employee at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) who conducted the investigation of Mr. Coppedge's alleged "harassment" of other employees.

In Ms. Huntley's testimony, we see someone who on the one hand completely failed to investigate David Coppedge's complaints that his civil rights were being violated, and on the other hand completely accepted -- with virtually no critical inquiry -- the complaints of others against him, rarely (if ever) bothering to check those accusations to make sure they were true.

Had Jhertaune Huntley fairly considered both sides -- Coppedge's and his accusers' -- and reached appropriate conclusions, JPL management would have had a devil of a time going on to demote and finally terminate him. She played a crucial supporting role in JPL's move to suppress an advocate of intelligent design. As we've said before, the case gives a chilling illustration of how the scientific "consensus" against ID actually works.

JPL's sloppy HR investigation disregarded the Lab's own policies for investigating employees, especially those policies that provide rights to employees who are being investigated. Huntley's investigation consistently took the easy way out. While fully accepting the word of employees who complained against Coppedge, she never asked for his side of the story. The discussion below is based upon Ms. Huntley's deposition testimony and parts of her trial testimony -- all of which was given under oath.

But first, let's try to understand the kind of person we're dealing with here. We have all heard stories of someone who went to the DMV and encountered an employee who just didn't care about helping to solve some problem. For an amusing student-performed skit, the "DMV Tyrant," see below:

In the video, the DMV employee is there to punch the clock. Over many years of punching that clock, she has become quite skilled at defending her own mistakes. When you ask questions beginning with words like, "Why?," her answers amount to little more than "Because." She doesn't care about helping you. When you ask precise questions to find out what she did, she gives imprecise, meaningless answers like "Not necessarily" or "Possibly" or "It all depends on the circumstances." These are all answers Huntley repeatedly gave during her own testimony.

What the DMV employee cares about most is protecting herself, and she does this by being frustratingly impossible to pin down. When you ask why a job wasn't performed better, she avoids answering the question, and tries to make you look like the aggressor for questioning her competence and skill. She knows how to use passive-aggressive tactics, infuriating you with her unwillingness to own her failures. She will stonewall until you can hardly take it anymore.

This is precisely the impression you get reading the trial testimony and deposition transcript of Ms. Huntley.

Her failures were fourfold:

  • (1) Huntley failed to adequately investigate David Coppedge's complaints.

  • (2) Huntley failed to follow JPL procedures designed to protect those facing harassment charges when investigating complaints made against David Coppedge.

  • (3) Huntley failed to critically examine complaints made against Coppedge and fact-check the complaints that were being made.

  • (4) Huntley's investigation drew inaccurate conclusions. This led to false claims being included in the warning letter she wrote that was ultimately given to David Coppedge.

Let's go back now and look at all this in some detail.

1. Huntley Completely Failed to Investigate David Coppedge's Complaints

As ENV readers may recall, on March 2, 2009, David Coppedge had an encounter with supervisor Greg Chin. Mr. Chin ordered Coppedge to stop "pushing his religious views on people" and forbade him to discuss those or other, political views with anyone at the lab in the future. In fact, the very next day Chin wrote an e-mail to other JPL staff stating: "I informed [Coppedge] that Intelligent Design (ID) is a personal belief that should be kept to himself unless invited by other to discuss." Here's how David Coppedge described the event in his trial testimony:

Q. What happened then?

A. Well, we were in this discussion about the nature of intelligent design, and I was trying to explain how it's not religious. But he [Greg Chin] interrupted me and said, "Dave, you are not to discuss religion or politics in this office or you may find it difficult to maintain your employment in this organization."

Q. What did you understand him to mean by that?

A. I was threatened with the loss of my job.

Q. What did you say in response?

A. Well, he said it several times to the point where I told him, "Greg, I hear you. You don't need to keep repeating it." Finally I said, "Greg, this gets into issues of free speech and freedom of religion."

Q. Why did you tell him that?

A. Well, we're here at a NASA center. We're here at JPL. One of the premier centers of NASA which is a civilian federal agency set up by Congress for the exploration of space. And my understanding was that we are -- JPL is a federal player. We have constitutional rights in this country. Rights of freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression. I'm not a lawyer. I don't know the exact relationship between Caltech and NASA but I do know that every machine I work on says, "Property of the U.S. Government" on it.

Q. So why did you feel what did that have to do with your statement?

A. I felt that my constitutional rights were being violated. My civil rights by his direct order not to discuss religion or politics with anyone in the office.

Q. So after you said this gets into religious liberty and free speech, what did he say?

A. He started to get up to leave. He didn't want to discuss this further.

Q. Did you say anything more?

A. Yes. As he was leaving I said, "Greg, this could be" -- excuse me, "Greg, this could be construed as creating a hostile work environment."

Q. Why did you say that?

A. Because of the hostility he was expressing in his tone of voice and his direct order which I thought crossed the line.

Q. What did he say then?

A. He was out the door and he shouted back to me then go ahead and file a complaint.

David Coppedge later met with Ms. Huntley and explained that Greg Chin had violated his civil rights, his freedom of speech, made a blanket accusation of harassment against him, ordered him to stop talking about intelligent design, and shouted, "Go ahead and file a complaint." Mr. Coppedge assumed that Huntley would realize Coppedge was making a complaint about a hostile work environment. But Huntley showed no interest in investigating David Coppedge's complaint of a hostile work environment.

Chin's treatment of David Coppedge sounds pretty serious. When pressed in her deposition about why she failed to investigate David's complaints about Chin, Huntley simply asserted, "David didn't make a claim of harassment to Human Resources as relates to Greg [Chin]."

But this wasn't true -- Coppedge did make an informal complaint to Huntley that his rights were being violated and his free speech muzzled. Huntley even admitted in the trial that "He [Coppedge] told me that Mr. Chin had accused him of pushing his beliefs on an employee and he forbade him to discuss religion and politics in the workplace" and later said "Mr. Coppedge said Mr. Chin was violating his civil rights by making statements of harassment or accusing him of harassing others." Huntley simply wasn't interested in investigating Coppedge's complaints. To protect herself, she then denied that he had ever made the complaints in the first place.

2. Huntley Failed to Follow JPL Procedures when Investigating Complaints Against David Coppedge

JPL has a variety of policies designed to ensure that those accused of workplace harassment receive some basic modicum of due process during the investigation of their behavior. In Huntley's investigation, many of these policies appear to have been disregarded.

One important JPL policy requires that HR inform a person facing harassment complaints of the relevant investigation procedures. HR must give the accused party an opportunity to comment on the suitability of the investigator. Huntley claims she did this. However, at the time, David Coppedge wasn't even aware of this right. Huntley never told David "You are being investigated for harassment and I am investigating you." David Coppedge was never informed that he was being investigated at all. So how could he possibly comment on the suitability of the investigator? Of course he couldn't.

Another requirement is that HR investigators must summarize, for the person facing complaints about himself, the evidence in support of the accusation. This is meant to allow the accused party the opportunity to reply to the charges. Again, Huntley claims she did that at a March 5, 2009, meeting with Mr. Coppedge, but her claim can't possibly be true. Coppedge's attorney, William Becker, exposed Huntley's lie (or faulty memory, perhaps). Becker showed that at the March 5 meeting, Huntley didn't yet even know the precise nature of the complaints against Coppedge. So obviously she couldn't have informed him of the charges.

Consider this exchange. (Margaret Weisenfelder is Coppedge's colleague who initially complained about his lending her a pro-intelligent design DVD.)

Q. You're aware that the investigators [are required] to summarize for the respondent the evidence in support of the complaint to allow the respondent the opportunity to reply to the complaint, right?

A. Yes.

Q. And you didn't do that, did you, on March 5th?

A. Yes, I did do that.

Q. Well, you couldn't have, could you, because you hadn't spoken to Margaret Weisenfelder? And you know who Margaret Weisenfelder is, don't you?

A. Yes.

Q. You didn't even know on March 5 that Margaret Weisenfelder was the individual who had complained to Greg Chin, did you?

A. Correct. I did not know.

Q. You didn't know that. And you didn't know what the basis of her complaint was, did you?

A. Yes. I did know the basis of the complaint.

Q. On March 5th you didn't know what the details of Margaret Weisenfelder's complaint were beyond that, did you?

A. No, I didn't know the specific details.

Q. You hadn't even met with Greg Chin, and you wouldn't meet with him until later that month; isn't that right?

A. I met with him over the phone but not physically.

Q. Right. But you did not get any details about what Margaret Weisenfelder told him until later in the month; isn't that right?

A. I did receive details in the conversation but not of -- not specific.

(Objections and instructions from the court omitted)

Moreover, after learning the precise nature of the complaints, Huntley never returned to David Coppedge to tell him what he was specifically being accused of. As Coppedge testified:
Q. By the way, did Ms. Huntley ever return to you after conducting any other interviews to tell you what you were being accused of specifically?

A. No, never.

So how could Coppedge respond to the accusations and evidence presented against him if he was never informed of what they were? Coppedge was in the dark about this investigation until the day he was demoted. And as we'll see, that demotion was also based upon a sloppy investigation by Huntley.

3. Huntley Failed to Critically Investigate the Complaints Against Coppedge

Not only did Huntley fail to investigate David Coppedge's harassment claim; in addition, she did an inadequate and incomplete job of investigating the harassment complaints against him. A common theme in Huntley's investigation is that she always accepted the word of Coppedge's accusers at face value, never asked David for his side of the story, and disregarded his side of the story when he was allowed to provide it.

David Coppedge had three co-workers at JPL who were ostensibly complaining about him to HR: Carmen Vetter, Margaret Weisenfelder, and Scott Edgington. They themselves did not initiate any complaints against David, but rather mentioned their problems to Greg Chin, a stridently anti-ID manager who took it upon himself to complain on their behalf.

Vetter's complaint pertained to conversations with Coppedge about a holiday party flier. He had asked that the word "Christmas" be used instead of "holiday." Weisenfelder's complaints had to do with Coppedge's lending her ID DVDs and discussions over California's Proposition 8 (having to do with same-sex marriage). Edgington's complaints also pertained to Proposition 8. And then there is Greg Chin, of course, who accused David "pushing religion" by lending out ID DVDs, and ordered him to stop doing so, under threat of losing his job.

Huntley never sought to find out if Chin, Vetter or Edgington held different religious views from Coppedge. This would have helped her determine if perhaps they had an animus against Coppedge's religious views that contributed to their feeling offended even if Coppedge himself was acting appropriately. There are a lot of other things she failed to investigate.

Regarding Carmen Vetter, Huntley concluded that David "demanded" that Vetter put the word "Christ" on the holiday potluck flier. (Huntley admitted at the trial that her notes were wrong, as David wasn't "demanding" the word "Christ" be included, but rather the word "Christmas.") Coppedge maintains he didn't say anything in the form of a "demand." Perhaps this is a "he said"/"she said" situation, but Huntley never even sought to find out what "he said."

When asked if it would be fairer for her to go back and ask David Coppedge whether he had actually "demanded" the change to the flier, Huntley said "No." When asked if she "gather[ed] any facts to support the view that he actually demanded" that the word "Christmas" be put on the holiday potluck flyer, Huntley replied "No, I did not." She never asked Coppedge for his side of this story. Instead, she simply took Carmen Vetter's word for it -- even though memories had faded and the incident had happened some four to five years before Huntley interviewed Vetter about the matter.

Regarding Coppedge's conversation with Scott Edgington over Prop 8, again Huntley simply accepted Egdington's version. Edgington said Coppedge had started an argument. In fact, Coppedge believed Edgington had started the argument over Prop 8, but again, Huntley never asked Coppedge for his version. If she had done so, she would have learned that he believed it was Edgington who first got upset in the conversation and even angrily accused Coppedge of promoting "propaganda."

As to Margaret Weisenfelder, she never complained about Coppedge's purportedly discussing religion. Rather, her complaints stated that (1) there was a sticky note on the Unlocking the Mystery of Life DVD she borrowed from Coppedge which said "try again," and (2) that when Coppedge approached her to talk about Prop 8, he had a piece of paper in his hand. Supposedly all this made her feel "uncomfortable." In Huntley's telling, Coppedge violated the JPL harassment policies. How so? Because Weisenfelder "was uncomfortable with his approach, the manner in which he approached her." But Huntley never considered Coppedge's side of this story in the investigation.

Regarding Weisenfelder and Prop 8, Huntley's notes state: "David approached Margaret and asked if he could talk about Prop 8." Coppedge believes he approached Weisenfelder gently and asked if he could talk with her about the matter, and dropped it after she said nothing would change her mind that she didn't want to talk about it. In her trial testimony, Huntley could not contradict Mr. Becker's point that "there is no additional fact in your investigative notes that explains what David's behavior was other than simply having a piece of paper in his hand." All that Huntley could say was that Weisenfelder said she felt "uncomfortable." Again, Huntley took Weisenfelder's word at complete face value.

Regarding the sticky note on the Unlocking the Mystery of Life DVD, Weisenfelder willingly borrowed the DVD from Coppedge. She watched it at home, which accordingly could in no way interfere with anyone's work. But she found that sticky note on the DVD that said "try again" and, as Huntley put it, "she [Weisenfelder] felt that they were being tracked and targeted" and "she felt uncomfortable with it."

Huntley said she took the words "try again" in this sense: "In the event they didn't accept the DVD when it was being loaned, try again meant approach them again." But that was Huntley's assumption and she failed to question whether her assumption was true. David Coppedge explained that the words "try again" meant something completely different -- that the recipient in fact wanted to watch the Unlocking the Mystery of Life DVD, but was too busy at the time he came by to offer it, so Coppedge would "try again" to give it to her later when she was free. Consider Coppedge's trial testimony where he explains:

I had given Jane Jones a copy of the Privileged Planet previously and she liked it a lot. In fact she even bought a copy. So later on when I showed her this one [Unlocking the Mystery of Life] I thought she would be interested in it too. She was interested, but she said she was busy at the time and wanted to see it later but couldn't right now. So that is why I wrote, "try again."
Huntley never tried to understand any of this, as her cross-examination makes clear. She never showed any interest in investigating David's side of this story:
Q. Now, you never went back to him [David Coppedge] to ask him to explain the Post-It note, did you?

A. No.

Q. And you never found out what the Post-It note was intended to accomplish --

A. No.

Margaret Weisenfelder said she "felt uncomfortable," and that was all Huntley cared to know.

Huntley's total reliance upon the feelings of the complainers is highly relevant, because JPL's policies state that "Harassment must be distinguished from behavior which, even though unpleasant or disconcerting, is appropriate to the carrying out of certain supervisory responsibilities or is objectively reasonable under the circumstances." In other words, when you're finding that someone engaged in "harassment," that finding cannot simply be based upon feelings. Rather, you need to cite objective and concrete facts. But Huntley based her conclusions entirely upon the subjective feelings of JPL staff -- feelings that she accepted as valid without question -- not objective facts that showed Coppedge had done something wrong. Moreover, she never circled back to get Coppedge's side of the story on any of these incidents.

In fact, during her investigation, Huntley spoke to David Coppedge first, before she interviewed the complainants. As we noted above, that means at the time she interviewed Coppedge, she didn't even know the precise nature of the complaints. And when she spoke to Coppedge, he wasn't aware of what the complainants were saying either, so he couldn't respond to any accusations. So Huntley was certain not to learn anything about how Coppedge might respond. But after she learned about the complaints and interviewed the supposed complainants, she never came back to David to ask for his side of the story.

When Huntley first learned about a complaint about Coppedge supposedly "harassing" someone by handing out DVDs, she failed even to ask who that person was or what the DVD was about. When she heard from Coppedge that he handed out DVDs to other people, she failed to ask him who those other people were, and failed to ask them if they felt harassed as well. David even handed Huntley a list of names of other JPL co-workers to whom he'd lent DVDs -- his point being that he had given out lots of DVDs to people who in no way felt "harassed" by him, and thus he had a pretty good track record of being careful not to offend people when discussing ID. But Huntley admitted she didn't even look at the list!

Nonetheless, Huntley concluded that Coppedge's lending of these DVDs was "likely to interfere" with workplace activity. That was simply because he kept a list of who he was sharing DVDs with. As Huntley testified at the trial:

Usually when conversations happen that are personal in nature, they just happen to come up and it just arises. It's just casual conversation. But when I spoke with Mr. Coppedge, he planned these conversations beforehand, and he also basically prepared a listing of who he was going to speak with as it related to, you know, DVDs as well as political topics.
In fact, Coppedge kept the list not to document who he was "going to speak with" but rather to document who he'd already spoken with so he wouldn't approach them again. Thus, at trial, Coppedge offered an entirely different reason for keeping the list -- one that showed he was trying to minimize discussions about the DVDs with his coworkers. As his deposition testimony states:
Q. And what was your purpose in maintaining a list of individuals to whom you distributed these DVDs?

A. So as not to harass someone if I had approached them earlier and they were not interested.

In other words, his reason for keeping the list was to avoid harassing people who didn't want to watch the DVDs or who had already been asked. Again, Huntley would never know any of this because she never asked David Coppedge why he kept the list. She only paid attention to the testimony of the complainers, and accepted it uncritically.

4. Huntley's Warning Letter Made Multiple False Claims

It was largely Huntley herself who wrote the warning letter that was placed in David Coppedge's file during the April 13, 2009 meeting where he was demoted from Team Lead System Administrator. But because Huntley had failed to adequately investigate the facts, the letter was filled with errors.

For example, the warning letter affirmatively stated that "coworkers found your requests to watch your DVDs that express your personal views to be unwelcome." But Huntley later conceded that no one ever actually told her they were uncomfortable about being handed DVDs:

Q. In fact, the number of people who said they were uncomfortable about being handed DVDs by David concerning intelligent design that you interviewed amount to precisely zero; isn't that right?

A. Yes.

Moreover, the letter claimed that David "failed to stop these activities [lending DVDs] when you were told they were unwelcome and disruptive." But as we've already seen, Huntley's own testimony exposes the fact that nobody actually felt that lending the DVDs was unwelcome or disruptive. During his trial testimony last week, David Coppedge explained what really happened:
Q. You failed to stop these activities when you were told they were unwelcome and disruptive; is that true?

A. No. That is not true. I told them that in the meeting. I said, I think that is false. Nobody ever told me that these were unwelcome or disruptive.

So either Huntley was making things up or she simply failed to investigate Coppedge's side of the story to learn what really happened.

The same thing occurred with respect to David's conversation with Scott Edgington over Prop 8. According to the letter Huntley wrote: "When you discovered your co-worker did not share your political views, you became upset and argumentative." But Coppedge testified that it was Edgington who first got upset:

Q. Now, it states, "When you discovered your coworker did not share your political views you became upset and argumentative," is that a true statement?

A. No. I became emotional after he accused me of stating propaganda, and he repeatedly used that word in an insulting way. It caused me to go on the defensive, but I was stating the arguments about the proposition not attacking him personally.

Coppedge continued: "They're alleging that I became upset and argumentative when the fact was he became upset and argumentative. ... I said, all I wanted to do was share information with him. He chose to get angry about it."

Again, Huntley never even bothered to ask David Coppedge for his side of the story, and simply adopted his accuser's version as incontrovertible truth. Coppedge testified:

Q. Did Ms. Huntley ever come back to you and ask you for the names of any other individuals that she could interview that might be able to -- might be able to support your version of any of the incidents involved in her investigation?

A. I never heard from her again except in response to my repeated request, "What process are you following here?"

There were other things that Jhertaune Huntley got wrong, but the bottom line is this: Her investigation of David Coppedge failed to follow JPL procedures. She never showed any interest in following up on David Coppedge's pleas to her that he might have been facing discrimination due to his support for intelligent design. And she failed to investigate his side of the story.

As a result, she drew false conclusions -- which ultimately led to a warning letter being placed in Coppedge's file that was filled with false claims. The most unfortunate conclusion was that David Coppedge -- a person who had sought protection from harassment by his supervisor -- was himself guilty of harassment. With a biased and sloppy HR investigator like Jhertaune Huntley working against him, David Coppedge never stood a chance.

Photo credit: "CA DMV 00734," Omar Bárcena/Flickr.