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Doe v. Valencia College

United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit

September 13, 2018

JOHN DOE, Individually, Plaintiff,
v.
VALENCIA COLLEGE, A Florida public college, Defendant, JEFFREY KOEPPEL, Individually, Plaintiff-Appellant, DISTRICT BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF VALENCIA COLLEGE, FLORIDA, JOYCE C. ROMANO, In her individual capacity, JOSEPH M. SARRUBBO, JR., In his individual capacity, THOMAS DECKER, In his individual capacity, SANFORD SHUGART, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida D.C. Docket No. 6:15-cv-01800-PGB-KRS

          Before ED CARNES, Chief Judge, MARCUS, and EBEL, [*] Circuit Judges.

          ED CARNES JUDGE

         Accused robbers, rapists, and murderers have statutory and constitutional rights. So does a college student who is accused of stalking and sexually harassing another student. The question in this case is whether Valencia College violated Jeffrey Koeppel's statutory or constitutional rights when it suspended him for his conduct toward another student at the college. The district court did not think so, and neither do we.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         A. Facts

         Jeffrey Koeppel met Jane Roe (pseudonym) during the summer of 2014 when they were assigned to the same biology lab group at Valencia College, a public college in Florida. Because they were assigned to work together, they exchanged phone numbers and would occasionally talk outside of class. As the semester went on, the 42-year-old Koeppel began to develop feelings for the 24-year-old Jane that were not purely academic. He volunteered to do things for her. He tutored her in biology. He offered to give her his old computer. And he asked if he could buy her a gift certificate for a massage. Eventually Koeppel told Jane that he was attracted to her. Jane let him know that the feeling was not mutual. She told him that she already had a boyfriend; that her relationship with Koeppel was strictly related to their role as lab partners in the biology class; and that she did not want him to have the wrong impression. After that the two of them finished the summer semester without incident.

         1. Koeppel Messages Jane

         A few days before the fall semester began, Koeppel saw something online that made him think that Jane was single. Ever hopeful, on August 3 he sent her a text message telling her once again that he had feelings for her: "So im saying I am interest[ed] in you . . . but im not on any mission or anything . . . i just don't enjoy feeling conflicted so I would rather talk about it."[1] That message came around 10:00 p.m. on a Sunday night while Jane was at home watching a movie with her son and her boyfriend.[2] Jane responded:

I have told you that I just want this to be class related [because] I am with someone who I've been seeing for 3 years now . . And we live together . . So I don't know if i gave you the wrong impression or whatever the case may be . . But I do have a serious [boyfriend] and really just thought we were studying and getting through the class.

         Koeppel replied that "[i]t really doesn[']t matter [because] you have been very fair with me . . ." and that "I just kinda hoped you would come around . . . be interested in me." He explained that he had asked her again because after looking at her Facebook page, he thought she had broken up with her boyfriend. And he told her that "U never sent any signals . . . I guess i just wanna ask what your plans are."

         Jane reiterated: "Listen I have a [boyfriend]. I have been busy with work. [W]hy are u texting me that when we already discussed this[?]" Then: "And saw what exactly on my Facebook? We are not even friends so how did u get on their [sic] . . . ." Jane and her boyfriend then called Koeppel, and Jane asked him why he was texting her, told him he had crossed a line by looking at her Facebook page, and told him that they were not friends.

         That apparently was not what Koeppel wanted to hear. He responded with a message to Jane advising her: "Get a nosejob. [Your boyfriend] can pay with his foodstamp[s]." Jane and her boyfriend called Koeppel again and informed him that they were calling the police. Koeppel admits that he then sent Jane a series of "inappropriate" messages and pictures in the hopes of "hurt[ing] her feelings." Each of these quotations is from a separate text:

• "I wondered if u were a hussie and i guess so."
• "Dress like a hooker and now act like it too."
• "Just sucks i didn't wear your pussy out."
• "Them skinny legs i been thinkin about."
• "Believe me i have had plenty of sex with you even if you weren[']t present."
• "What u think i was thinkin bout when ur in them tiny whore shorts."
• "Your little butt cheeks hanging out."
• "Yum yum!!!!!"
• "Ur cute with a LOT of face paint . . ."
• "But I like that cute little mole by ur titty."
• "A hussie is as a hussie does."

         Koeppel also sent her a picture of his bare chest, a picture of himself wearing a costume with his arm around a woman, and a picture of a woman pretending to perform oral sex on another person. He later conceded that given the content and the number of his text messages, it was possible that someone receiving them would have been concerned.

         Meanwhile, Jane's boyfriend called the Seminole County Sheriff's Office. Deputy Brenton Rush responded and met Jane outside of her apartment. She told him what had happened and that she was scared. Deputy Rush looked at the messages and, at Jane's request, called Koeppel to recommend that he stop talking to her. Despite his recommendation, Koeppel called her again around midnight from an unknown number.

         After midnight that same night, Jane twice messaged Koeppel to "Stop calling me. Do not have any contact with me." But Koeppel kept on texting her until 5:00 a.m.[3] The messages in those later texts included questions about Jane's boyfriend, statements mocking Jane's anxiety disorder, an apology, and, when Jane didn't respond to his apology, this message: "Starbucks date - a 6.5 oz can of expresso [sic] and cream - despite the fact that it is not carbonated when opened it tends to eject some of its contents directly on one[']s face."

         On August 6, Koeppel texted Jane again, but she did not respond until August 13, when she once again told him to stop: "You are crazy[. L]eave me alone and my [ ] life[. S]top stalking my Facebook[. L]eave us alone! The cops already informed u to leave me alone and you haven't." He didn't stop.

         2. Valencia Suspends Koeppel

         On August 11, 2014, Jane, accompanied by her boyfriend and son, went to Valencia Dean of Students Joseph Sarrubbo's office to complain about Koeppel's messages. At that meeting Sarrubbo noticed that Jane was "visibly upset and shaken," and he recommended that she complete a witness statement with the campus safety and security office.[4]

         a. Sarrubbo's Investigation

         Campus security forwarded Jane's complaint and an incident report to Dean Sarrubbo, and he used those documents to create a charge letter listing the potential violations of the Valencia Student Code of Conduct.[5] Sarrubbo emailed Koeppel informing him in writing about the charges against him and instructing Koeppel to schedule a time to meet for an informal hearing. Sarrubbo also told Koeppel that he was beginning an investigation and that until the investigation was concluded Koeppel was under a no contact order with Jane and had been unenrolled from a fall class that Jane was also taking. Koeppel violated that no contact order when he texted Jane later that evening. He admits that he sent Jane 20 messages trying to persuade her to withdraw her complaint with the college.

         When he met with Sarrubbo on August 15, Koeppel admitted to sending the messages, explained how he viewed his relationship with Jane, and commented on each allegation in her complaint. A few days later Sarrubbo met with Jane. During that interview Jane appeared "nervous and concerned." She told Sarrubbo that she was "concerned about running into - interacting with Mr. Koeppel on campus" because they were enrolled in the same class in the fall and she didn't "want to be around him."

         In addition to meeting with both students, Dean Sarrubbo spoke with Deputy Rush and reviewed documents submitted by Jane and by Koeppel. Jane gave Sarrubbo screen shots of the messages that Koeppel had sent her. Koeppel, who had deleted the messages on his phone, used a text recovery service and submitted a Word document with some of the messages that he had sent to Jane. Koeppel also submitted a receipt for the computer he insisted that he had bought Jane, an image of ...


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