Hendricks v. Clemson University

Decision Date17 March 2003
Docket NumberNo. 25606.,25606.
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesR.J. HENDRICKS, II, Respondent, v. CLEMSON UNIVERSITY, Petitioner.

Jack D. Griffeth and Amy G. Richmond, both of Love, Thornton, Arnold & Thomason, of Greenville, for petitioner.

Scott M. Anderson, of Anderson Law Firm, P.A., of Greenville, for respondent.

Chief Justice TOAL:

Petitioner, Clemson University ("Clemson"), appeals from the Court of Appeals' reversal of summary judgment for Clemson.


Respondent, R.J. Hendricks, II ("Hendricks") was recruited out of high school by several colleges to play baseball. He received a scholarship from St. Leo College, a Division II school in Florida, and chose to attend St. Leo because it was closest to home. In his junior year at St. Leo, Hendricks received permission to talk with Division I schools about transferring in order to play baseball for a Division I team in his final year of eligibility. Hendricks's father contacted Tim Corbin ("Corbin"), assistant coach at Clemson, to inquire about a transfer for his son.1 Clemson pursued a one-time transfer exception for Hendricks from the NCAA, and Hendricks applied for admission and was accepted by Clemson.2 Hendricks received a book scholarship for approximately $200 to $250, but no other scholarship, athletic or otherwise, from Clemson.

At the time of his transfer, Hendricks had earned 80 of the 130 credit hours required for the degree he was pursuing at St. Leo in Business Administration, with a cluster in Restaurant and Hotel Management. Clemson did not offer the same major. When Hendricks decided to transfer to Clemson, he knew he would have to return to St. Leo for a final semester (in essence, for an extra semester) in order to graduate from St. Leo with his original major.

Sometime in August, prior to registration, Hendricks met with the athletic academic advisor assigned to him by Clemson's Student-Athlete Enrichment Program, Barbara Kennedy-Dixon ("Kennedy-Dixon"). As Clemson did not offer Hendricks's major, Kennedy-Dixon advised Hendricks to declare himself a Speech and Communications major. Pursuant to her advice, Hendricks enrolled in fifteen hours for the fall semester. A week and a half into the semester, however, Kennedy-Dixon realized she had not evaluated whether Hendricks was in compliance with the NCAA's fifty-percent rule, which required a student athlete to complete at least fifty percent of the course requirements toward his major to be eligible to compete during his fourth year of college enrollment. Recognizing her mistake, Kennedy-Dixon advised Hendricks to drop one class and add two speech classes, increasing his credit hours from fifteen to eighteen. Hendricks changed his classes as advised. Kennedy-Dixon discussed the mistake with her graduate assistant, but did not report it to the director of the program. A few days before the end of the semester, Kennedy-Dixon realized that she had miscalculated the total number of electives Hendricks could take and, consequently, that he would not comply with the NCAA's fifty percent rule.3

Upon discovering her mistake, Kennedy-Dixon filed a waiver application with the NCAA in which she claimed responsibility for Hendricks's failure to satisfy the rule, and requested that the NCAA waive the rule to allow Hendricks to play baseball. The NCAA denied the appeal. Hendricks passed all of his fall course hours and remained at Clemson for the spring semester, but was not allowed to play baseball. He returned to St. Leo the next fall without a scholarship as planned. Hendricks graduated on schedule in December, but stayed on at St. Leo for the spring semester to play baseball because he had not used his final year of eligibility.

Clemson won the NCAA regional title that spring and went to the College World Series. In his deposition, Clemson's head coach, Coach Leggett, stated there was no limit on the number of players allowed on the non-traveling team, but that the traveling team was limited to 25 players. Based on Hendricks's performance in fall practice, Coach Leggett testified it would have been very hard for Hendricks to make the traveling team. Coach Leggett met with Hendricks at the end of the fall semester (before he was aware Hendricks was ineligible) and explained to him that there were 3 players ahead of him in the line-up for both of the positions Hendricks played, catcher and first base.

In her deposition, Kennedy-Dixon admitted her mistakes were likely caused by personal stress she was experiencing at the time. She gave birth to a premature baby in June (before advising Hendricks in August), and was traveling to Greenville daily to visit her baby who remained in neonatal intensive care until October of Hendricks's first semester at Clemson. Kennedy-Dixon described the purpose of her job as follows: "We have a two-fold purpose .... We try to help our students maintain academic excellence and certainly to make sure that they remain academically eligible according to the NCAA and graduate."

Hendricks sued Clemson for negligence, breach of fiduciary duty, and breach of contract for Kennedy-Dixon's mistakes that made him ineligible to play baseball at Clemson. The trial court granted Clemson's motion for summary judgment on all causes of action. The Court of Appeals reversed summary judgment, finding that genuine issues of material fact existed regarding the viability of each of Hendricks's causes of action. Hendricks v. Clemson Univ., 339 S.C. 552, 529 S.E.2d 293 (Ct.App.2000).

Clemson raises the following issues on appeal:

I. Did the Court of Appeals err in finding there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding the existence of a duty to support Hendricks's negligence claim?
II. Did the Court of Appeals err in finding there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding the existence of a fiduciary duty between Kennedy-Dixon and Hendricks, as advisor and student?
III. Did the Court of Appeals err in finding a genuine issue of fact regarding the existence of a contract between Hendricks and Clemson?
IV. Did the Court of Appeals err in partially reversing the trial court's holding that Hendricks suffered no measurable damages?

Summary judgment is appropriate where there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Hamiter v. Retirement Div. of South Carolina Budget and Control Bd., 326 S.C. 93, 484 S.E.2d 586 (1997). In determining whether any triable issues of fact exist, the evidence and all reasonable inferences must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id.

I. Negligence

Clemson argues the Court of Appeals erred when it found Kennedy-Dixon's actions did not amount to gross negligence as a matter of law, and reversed summary judgment for Clemson. We agree that the Court of Appeals erred in reversing summary judgment on this issue, and find that summary judgment was appropriate on the additional ground that Clemson owed no duty to Hendricks.

Both the trial court and Court of Appeals agree that the South Carolina Tort Claims Act ("Tort Claims Act") shields Clemson, as a state-supported university, from liability for loss resulting from "responsibility or duty including but not limited to supervision, protection, control, confinement, or custody of any student ... except when the responsibility or duty is exercised in a grossly negligent manner."4 The Court of Appeals discussed gross negligence at length and then addressed Clemson's claim that it had no duty to ensure students' athletic eligibility. Citing Kennedy-Dixon's description of her job duties and the proposition that if an act is voluntarily undertaken, the actor assumes the duty to use slight care, the Court of Appeals found there was at least a factual dispute as to whether Clemson undertook the duty to advise Hendricks concerning compliance with NCAA eligibility standards. Hendricks, 339 S.C. 552, 560-561, 529 S.E.2d 293, 297 (citing Miller v. City of Camden, 329 S.C. 310, 494 S.E.2d 813 (1997) (discussing assumption of duty by voluntary undertaking)).

"The determination of the existence of a duty is solely the responsibility of the court." Miller, 329 S.C. 310,494 S.E.2d 813 (citing Ellis v. Niles, 324 S.C. 223, 479 S.E.2d 47 (1996)). Whether the law recognizes a particular duty is an issue of law to be decided by the Court. Id. (citing Carson v. Adgar, 326 S.C. 212, 486 S.E.2d 3 (1997)). An affirmative legal duty exists only if created by statute, contract, relationship, status, property interest, or some other special circumstance. Carson. Ordinarily, the common law imposes no duty on a person to act. Where an act is voluntarily undertaken, however, the actor assumes the duty to use due care. Id. (citing Russell v. City of Columbia, 305 S.C. 86, 406 S.E.2d 338 (1991)).

Hendricks's argument that Clemson affirmatively assumed a duty of care when it advised him on which courses to take in order to obtain NCAA eligibility does not fit into any of the causes of action previously recognized in South Carolina. Under these circumstances, the Court must determine whether the law will recognize a new duty of care between advisor and student. Ellis.

In considering the same question, a California court found the issue of duty to be close, but leaned toward finding no duty due to significant policy concerns. Brown v. Compton Unified Sch. Dist., 68 Cal.App.4th 114, 80 Cal.Rptr.2d 171 (1998). California represents the position of the majority of states in refusing to recognize the tort of "educational malpractice" in claims brought by students alleging they received an inadequate education. Peter W. v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 60 Cal.App.3d 814, 131 Cal.Rptr. 854 (1976) (seminal case); Ross v. Creighton Univ., 957 F.2d 410 (1992) (considering Illinois state law and citing cases from eleven other states that have...

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