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  • Writer's picturePhil Griffis

The Coppedge “Intelligent Design” Suit - Cal Tech’s Response

Last week I discussed the specific claims being made by David Coppedge, against the California Institute of Technology (“Cal Tech”), in his wrongful demotion suit against it.  As you would expect, Cal Tech (which manages the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) came out with all guns blasting.  In addition to asserting a number of boilerplate defenses (statute of limitations, waiver, estoppel, failure to exhaust administrative remedies, etc.) it asserted a number of interesting responses.  For instance, Cal Tech’s answer asserted that it was “unable to accommodate” Coppedge’s alleged religious beliefs without “undue hardship”.   It also claimed that his alleged demotion was not an actionable adverse employment decision.

A few months later, Cal Tech asked the Court to enter summary judgment in its favor.  This means that it asked the judge to find that it’s defenses were strong enough that the case should not be sent to the jury, and that the court should enter judgment in its favor.  Such motions are difficult to win, especially when the case is dependent on witness testimony.   Some judges do not like to grant these motions, due to the risk that their decision will be overturned by a court of appeals.

Cal Tech’s motion argued that, for multiple reasons, the suit had no merit.  The more notable grounds included: 

  1. Cal-Tech’s allegation that it had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the actions it took against Coppedge.

  2. It’s allegation that none of the actions it took against Coppedge could be deemed an actionable adverse employment decision.

The trial court denied the motion, finding that “triable issues of fact” existed, and that the jury, not the judge, should decide them after hearing all of the evidence.  In short, it ruled that the case, at the very least, had enough merit to be sent to a jury for decision.  In it’s reasoning, the court found that a jury might determine that Coppedge’s demotion was a substantial adverse, and actionable, change in his employment.  The court also found notable the close (6 week) proximity between Coppedge’s discussion of his beliefs with his superiors, and his demotion.  The court then, finally, dipped a toe into the “heavier” aspects of the case, stating:

“Because of the distinctive facts of this case, particularly Plaintiff’s alleged “pushing” of Intelligent Design and the perception of Intelligent Design as religion by various co-employees, this determination requires an inquiry into the internal mental states of individuals that is inappropriate for summary adjudication.  Defendant’s argument that the relevant decision makers are in the same “protected category” (i.e. Christian), and thus lacked discriminatory bias, is not persuasive.  Christianity is diverse, and a trier of fact could reasonably conclude that the decisionmakers held different views of Christianity and Intelligent Design than Plaintiff”.

Apparently Cal Tech argued that it could not be liable for discrimination against Coppedge, due to his belief’s on Intelligent Design, since the employees that demoted Coppedge were themselves Christians.  If that was in fact Cal Tech’s argument, it’s not surprising that it failed.

And the raising of this issue also begs the question of whether Intelligent Design is a “religious belief”, a doctrine of Christianity, or all/none of the above.  And if these are indeed issues the court must decide, a question could well be raised as to whether a court of law has any business deciding them.

Following this decision the parties prepared for trial, filing an avalanche of interesting pretrial motions.  I will dig into them next week.


Phil Griffis obtained his first jury verdict in 1990, when he convinced a jury that a customer’s fall at his client’s store did not cause the customer’s aspiration pneumonia and stroke. In the years since he has continued to win in courtrooms across the State of Texas.

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