University of Hartford Prevails in a Lawsuit by Aggrieved Student-Athletes Stemming from Its Athletic Transition to a NCAA Division III Program

Sep 8, 2023

By Alejandra D. Gonzalez, Esq.

The United States District Court for the District of Connecticut recently dismissed on summary judgment three student-athletes’ lawsuit against the University of Hartford (“Hartford”) and its Board of Trustees (“the Board”), for its decision to athletically transition from a NCAA Division I program to Division III. The three student-athletes brought promissory estoppel claims against Hartford and the Board, seeking to enforce the alleged promise that there would not be a change to the athletes’ Division I experience during the 2021-2022 school year. The plaintiffs were Kaleigh Fitzgerald, Jessica Harrison, and Thomas Summers, who were recruited by Hartford to play their respective sports at the prestigious Division I level. 

Under the summary judgement standard outlined by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment is appropriate if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the nonmoving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Court first outlined the alleged promise purportedly relied on by the athletes before delving into the particular circumstance of each individual.

Specifically, the Court noted that the athletes did not contest the fact that in the 2021-2022 academic year Hartford remained a Division I program, however the athletes’ argument was that Hartford and the Board promised that there would be no change to the athletic experience during the 2021-2022 year as a result of the shift to another division level. As the basis for their promissory estoppel claim, the athletes identified written and oral statements from Hartford’s president, Gregory Woodward, Chair of the Board, David Gordon, Acting Vice President of Athletics and Recreation, Dr. Sharon Beverly, as well as statements from two of the athletes’ coaches in conjunction with announcements on Hartford’s website. The crux of the oral and written statements centered around honoring scholarship contracts and commitments, the value of a Division I experience, the multi-year transition to Division III, and one of the athlete’s coach’s statement that “the upcoming years would be ‘the last dance’ of being a Division I program.” 

For a promissory estoppel claim to be successful, two elements must be established: (1) “the existence of a clear and definite promise which a promisor could reasonably have expected to induce reliance” and (2) that the promise actually induced action or forbearance on behalf of the promisee. The Court found that nothing in the verbal and oral statements that the athletes identified underscored a “clear and definite promise” that their Division I experience would be maintained. Instead, the statements amounted more to expressions of sympathy, understanding, or opinion, with no real commitment shown. The only exception were the statements made by Summers’ lacrosse coach, which alluded to the “upcoming years” that would bear the support and experiences that Summers and his teammates had become accustomed to as Division I athletes, including the lacrosse program maintaining its “full” team and training staff, yet Hartford eventually cancelled the men’s spring 2022 lacrosse season. Nevertheless, the Court found that Summers had not submitted any evidence that showed a reasonable juror could find that the statements induced his reliance or forbearance. 

Focusing on the individual facts pertaining to each student-athlete, the Court discussed that Fitzgerald, who was recruited to play on the women’s volleyball team, entered the NCAA transfer portal approximately a week after the fall 2021 season finished, transferring to the University of Albany’s Division I program in the spring of 2022. Based on Fitzgerald’s deposition testimony, the Court asserted that she did not enter the NCAA transfer portal when she first learned of Hartford’s transition to a Division III program for reasons other than the alleged promise regarding the athletes having the same Division I experience, such as logistical costs, timing, and wanting to experience a season without the COVID-19 pandemic affecting her. As to Harrison, who was recruited to the women’s lacrosse team, her deposition testimony highlighted that she chose to remain a student at Hartford due to almost finishing her university credits. Lastly, regarding Summers, the Court stated that his decision to not transfer in 2021, after the athletic change announcement, was based on his desire to finish his degree in four years and maintain the relationships he had cultivated at the university, as relayed in his deposition. 

The Court’s analysis in granting summary judgment on behalf of Hartford and the Board heavily emphasized the depositions of the athletes’, utilizing their own statements against them to portray that a reliance on the alleged promise was not established. To date, an appeal has not been initiated by the student-athletes. 

Fitzgerald v. Univ. of Hartford, No. 3:21-cv-00934 (MPS), 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 131810 *1 (D. Conn. July 31, 2023).

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