Wearing a tie flecked with spacecrafts, former JPL employee David Coppedge listened Tuesday to two versions of himself: a competent worker and evangelical Christian whose religious and employee rights were violated; and a stubborn man with no self awareness who pushed his viewpoint on colleagues.
During opening statements, lawyers for Coppedge and Jet Propulsion Laboratory offered disparate depictions of the man suing the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, claiming his belief in intelligent design led to his layoff in 2011.
Defense attorney Jim Zapp repeated several times during his hour-long opening that intelligent design has nothing to do with this case.
"Frankly, Mr. Coppedge was his own worst enemy,'' he said, noting the plaintiff was argumentative, had poor customer service and believed he was right when everyone else was wrong.
Coppedge had worked as a "team lead" on the Cassini mission exploring Saturn, but was demoted in 2009, filed a lawsuit against JPL in 2010 and lost his job last year. Some 200 people were laid off that same year due to budget cutbacks.
And while plaintiff attorney William Becker told the court Tueday that between 2003 and 2008 Coppedge received no poor performance evaluations in his personnel file, Zapp countered that Coppedge's own handwritten notes from conversations with his supervisor, Greg Chin, would show that people, in fact, had complained that Coppedge always wanted to do things his way. They further complained about his poor customer service.
Defense Opening Statement
Other colleagues felt harassed by Coppedge, who frequently offered to lend them intelligent design DVDs. Some accepted, some did not - but one colleague in particular took offense to a "secret list'' he was keeping that tracked who borred them, when they were returned and what the employees said about the DVD. A sticky note on the list read "try again.''
The complaints came to a head in March 2009.
After working with Coppedge for a decade, Chin wanted to try to coach Coppedge about how to improve his behavior in the office, Zapp said. He told Coppedge not to discuss religion or politics in the office if it was unwelcome or disruptive.
"If he’d accepted Chin’s helpful advice, and said, 'I heard what you’re saying; I disagree...and I’ll try to watch it – we wouldn't be here. There would be no case,'' Zapp said.
Instead, Coppedge grew increasingly agitated, took it as a "war on intelligent design,'' and challenged Chin to a debate outside JPL (he declined), Zapp said. From there, Coppedge escalated the converstion by demanding to know who his accusers were. Chin opted not to tell him and Coppedge said he felt it had become a "hostile work environment,'' so a human resources investigation was launched, Zapp said.
Zapp called into question Coppedge's behavior with another JPL employee. Coppedge was discussing his support for Proposition 8, the state-wide ballot measure that eliminated the right for same sex couples to marry, with Scott Edgington. According to Zapp, Coppedge made insulting remarks and Edgington had to ask Coppedge to leave -- twice.
"Mr. Coppedge was an employee who had no self awareness and was unwilling to listen to others. He alienated his JPL co-workers, then blamed anyone who complained about him.
"His belief in intelligent design had nothing to do with the employment actions Caltech took,'' Zapp said.
Plaintiff's Opening Statement
According to the plaintiff's attorney, it was Coppedge who was harassed and ultimately terminated because of his beliefs in intelligent design, the theory that life is too complex to have developed solely through evolution, and that the universe was designed by an intelligent entity.
Becker, too, referenced the March 2009 meeting between Coppedge and Chin, but offered it was Chin who got upset. He referred to intelligent design as "religion,'' and when Coppedge tried to explain that it is not religion, Chin grew angry and frustrated, Becker said. He was told not to discuss religion and politics in the office, unless someone else brought it up.
JPL delves into origins of the universe, and Coppedge puts forth intelligent design as the theory that he believes in. He's not offering that it is a religion, in fact, Becker said, Coppedge is an evangelical Christian who "wears his religion on his sleeve.''
And although Coppedge is accused of harassing co-workers about his various beliefs, Becker said, "There’s no evidence of hostility in this case. No evidence that they told David they felt intimidated.''