Coppedge vs. JPL: Caltech’s Answer Filed

OUR last post on this topic was David Coppedge vs. JPL (27 Jun 2010), followed by a bit of commentary here: Comer, Coppedge, & Casey. If you haven’t been following this case, the next few indented paragraphs will provide background information, which most of you can skip:

This is a suit by a creationist, David Coppedge, who claims he was wrongfully demoted by his employer because he was promoting Intelligent Design (ID) on the job. He works for Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), He also maintains a creationist website: Creation-Evolution Headlines.

This is a big case for the neo-theocrats at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (a/k/a the Discoveroids). They’re trying to establish some new kind constitutional right — an employee’s “freedom to promote creationism” in the workplace. One of their top legal talents, Discoveroid Casey Luskin, is advising the lawyer for Coppedge — that’s William J. Becker, Jr., who seems to be mostly a personal injury and workers’ comp lawyer.

To promote the issue, the Discoveroids are waging a public relations campaign which we described here: The Coppedge Case: A Study in Tactics and Strategy. They’ve set up a page devoted to this case, which is here.

The official information source for the Coppedge case requires payment of a small fee to the court clerks here: Superior Court of California, Los Angeles. At the box for “Case Number” you need to enter BC435600. Some minimal information is available for free — the names of the parties and their lawyers, a list of what documents have been filed, what proceedings have been held, and what future hearings have been scheduled.

Now that we’re all together, what’s been happening in the five weeks since our last update? Our earlier speculations about settlement negotiations have proven to be wrong — or if there were negotiations they’ve broken down. The case is very much alive.

Caltech has filed its answer to the amended complaint. One of our operatives sent us a copy, but we don’t yet know of any website where it’s freely available. You can see the amended complaint here.

The same law firm that represents Caltech is representing three of the individuals who were sued by Coppedge: Chin, Burgess, and Klenk. In the amended complaint, Chin was said to be Coppedge’s direct supervisor at JPL; Burgess was the group supervisor, and Klenk was the section manager of “IT Resources for the Chief Information Officer”. The complaint refers to 25 other unnamed defendants who were all in on the damage done to Coppedge, but they’re not yet known or part of the case.

The law firm representing Caltech and those three named individuals is Paul Hastings — one of the biggest firms in the country. Wikipedia has an article on them: Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, which says they’ve got over 1,100 attorneys, and offices more or less everywhere. It’s not surprising that Caltech would have that kind of firm for this case.

Okay, you’re all wondering: What does Caltech’s answer say? Not much, really. As expected in this kind of thing, it’s a long list of what appears to be every conceivable defense to this kind of suit: general denial, plaintiff hasn’t been damaged, plaintiff fails to state a cause of action, claim is barred by the statute of limitations, barred by the doctrine of unclean hands, failure to exhaust administrative remedies, waiver, failure to mitigate, unjust enrichment, etc.

But paragraph 10 is interesting. It’s probably another standard defense in such employment cases, but it may have particular applicability here: “Defendants are unable to reasonably accommodate Plaintiff’s alleged religious beliefs and/or practices without undue hardship.”

Right. Your honor, we can’t accommodate a creationist without turning the universe inside-out to make him happy; and we can’t afford that because then our rocket science won’t work any more.

Paragraph 13 is interesting for the same reason: “[A]ll of Defendants’ actions with respect to Plaintiff were taken solely for legitimate business reasons unrelated to any alleged discrimination, harassment or retaliation.”

Any or all of Caltech’s long list of defenses could be interesting, depending on the facts — but we don’t know the facts yet. These things take time.

Paragraph 29 is of technical interest to employment law buffs: “Plaintiff may not recover punitive damages because, at all times relevant to the Complaint, Defendant Caltech had in place a policy to prevent discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace and made good-faith efforts to implement and enforce that policy.”

If that’s how to avoid punitive damages in California, we assume that all major employers are well-protected by their personnel policies. That sort of thing probably adds significantly to the cost of doing business in America, and it doesn’t improve our products, but hey — that’s how it goes in the land of the free.

Caltech’s 30th defense says that they reserve the right to assert more defenses if discovery indicates they would be appropriate. They’ve probably got a dozen others ready to go. Isn’t this fun?

The signature section of Caltech’s answer mentions the names of two lawyers who seem to be handling this case: James A. Zapp and Cameron W. Fox. We’ll probably be seeing more of their work as this case proceeds. For the moment, Messrs. Zapp and Fox have given the legal world a textbook form for answering complaints like the one filed by Coppedge.

That’s it, dear reader, as far as new pleadings go. We’ve checked the court docket and there’s nothing else going on. No hearings are scheduled. But when there’s news to report, we’ll be here.

Update: See Coppedge vs. JPL: Meet Boardley at Mt. Rushmore.

Update: See David Coppedge vs. JPL & Caltech (03 Sep 2010).

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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2 responses to “Coppedge vs. JPL: Caltech’s Answer Filed

  1. The defense that “plaintiff hasn’t been damaged” means that when he was reassigned to a non-supervisory position, his pay was unaffected. That would be the normal action for this sort of thing.

    I wonder if he talked to his friends at DI before filing the suit, and if they prodded him to do it. Since he has no financial loss, the case must be entirely based on his allegations of harassment for being a creationist. No matter how crazy he is, he has to see that as a losing case. The only ones that I can see that could benefit would be the DI – they can either declare victory in the unlikely event that Coppedge wins, or use a defeat to advance their propaganda about Darwinist conspiracies and oppression of minority viewpoints. Unless they plan to underwrite Coppedge’s legal fees, he’s the one taking all the risk.

  2. @Ed:

    The Alliance Defense Fund is probably footing the bill. This case seems designed for the “expelled” myth.