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JPL lawsuit: Ex-employee challenged on work record, not beliefs

March 21, 2012
(Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff…)

Attorneys for Jet Propulsion Laboratory challenged former employee David Coppedge on his track record at the facility Tuesday, laying out a history of complaints about his work that had nothing to do with religion or politics.

Coppedge is suing JPL for wrongful termination, claiming he was the subject of discrimination because he engaged other coworkers in conversation about California’s ban on gay marriages and the theory of intelligent design, which holds that God guided the creation and evolution of the universe.

JPL’s lead attorney, James Zapp, said Coppedge’s competency as a systems administration team leader on the Cassini mission to Saturn had come under fire long before 2009, when Coppedge’s practice of lending out DVDs on intelligent design prompted a coworker to complain of harassment.

Zapp said complaints about Coppedge’s work performance came from employees with which Coppedge had never discussed intelligent design, religion or politics, and that they came years before his demotion and termination.

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Zapp asked Coppedge about a March 2004 meeting where Cassini project supervisors Greg Chin and Clark Burgess had told Coppedge that coworkers complained he was stubborn and difficult.

“Office managers thought you were uncooperative, and Mr. Chin told you that some of the office managers on Cassini were even asking that you be removed, is that correct?” Zapp asked.

Coppedge said his own notes from the meeting confirmed the topic had been raised.

“He reported that members of my own team had expressed the same concerns, that I appeared too opinionated or unwilling to listen,” said Coppedge.

Coppedge, whose headaches have occasionally interrupted the trial proceedings, became visibly agitated during Zapp’s questioning, at times taking off his glasses and closing his eyes.

Coppedge’s attorney, William Becker, asked Coppedge if he needed to take a break to avoid a migraine, but Coppedge continued to testify.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ernest Hiroshige told Coppedge several times to give "yes" or "no" responses to Zapp’s questions, rather than adding commentary.

“This is not a yes or no question, this is out of context,” Coppedge said in response to one question about his meetings with JPL supervisors. “I’m learning the art of spin doctoring here.”

The case is expected to continue with testimony from Coppedge’s former coworkers.

-- Daniel Siegal, Times Community News

Twitter: @ValleySunDan

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