New Twists On Florida’s ‘Tipsy Coachman’ Doctrine

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A recent Florida appellate decision examines some new twists on Florida’s “tipsy coachman” doctrine. Before we discuss the new decision, though, it may be useful to discuss what the tipsy coachman doctrine is and where it originated.

In Carraway v. Armour and Co., 156 So. 2d 494 (Fla. 1963), the Supreme Court of Florida concluded that a deputy commissioner arrived at “a substantially correct conclusion” on a workers’ compensation issue, even though the deputy commissioner erroneously proceeded under the wrong statute. The supreme court quashed the Industrial Commissioner’s reversal of that order, saying “[w]e are reminded of Goldsmith’s RETALIATION:

‘The pupil of impulse, it forc’d him along,
His conduct still right, with his argument wrong;
Still aiming at honour, yet fearing to roam,
The coachman was tipsy, the chariot drove home . . . .’”

Id. at 497 (quoting Lee v. Porter, 63 Ga. 345 (1879)). The Supreme Court of Georgia opinion that originally quoted Oliver Goldsmith’s poem also remarked: “It not infrequently happens that a judgment is affirmed upon a theory of the case which did not occur to the court that rendered it, or which did occur and was expressly repudiated. The human mind is so constituted that in many instances it finds the truth when wholly unable to find the way that leads to it.” Lee, 63 Ga. 345 (emphasis in original).

By 1984, the Supreme Court of Florida recognized “the well established rule that trial court decisions are presumptively valid and should be affirmed, if correct, regardless of whether the reasons advanced are erroneous.” Vandergriff v. Vandergriff, 456 So. 2d 464, 466 (Fla. 1984). But it was Judge Cowart of the Fifth District Court of Appeal who that same year harkened back to Goldsmith’s poem and observed that “in some legal circles this rule of law is known as the ‘tipsy coachman’ rule.” Holland v. Holland, 458 So. 2d 81, 85 n.3 (Fla. 5th DCA 1984) (Cowart, J., dissenting).

Judge Cowart’s label stuck. Nearly 200 Florida appellate decisions have now referenced the tipsy coachman rule or, more common recently, the tipsy coachman doctrine, including more than a dozen Florida Supreme Court decisions, starting with Dade County School Bd. v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So. 2d 638, 645 n.8 (Fla. 1999).

Most recently, the First District Court of Appeal addressed the doctrine in detail, explaining that it ‘“allows an appellate court to affirm a trial court that ‘reaches the right result, but for the wrong reasons’ so long as ‘there is any basis which would support the judgment in the record.’” Powell v. State, 2013 WL 3942491, *1 (Fla. 1st DCA Aug. 1, 2013) (quotation omitted). The alternative theory must actually be supported by the record, id. (citing Robertson v. State, 829 So. 2d 901, 906-07 (Fla. 2002)), but while the appellee need not have raised the alternative theory below, id. (citing State v. Hankerson, 65 So. 3d 502 (Fla. 2011)), it will not apply where factual findings necessary to support the theory were not made below, id. (citing Bueno v. Workman, 20 So. 3d 993, 998 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009)).

The First District considered how appellate courts might address alternative theories for affirmance raised by the appellee for the first time at oral argument. The court held that while the tipsy coachman doctrine “allows” an appellate court to consider alternative grounds supporting affirmance, “it does not compel [the court] to overlook deficient records and blaze new trails that even the tipsiest of coachman could not have traversed.” Id. *2. Thus, the court observed that “[b]asic principles of due process suggest that courts should not consider issues raised for the first time at oral argument.” Id. The court noted that when arguments for affirmance are raised for the first time at oral argument, the appellant loses the opportunity to address them except “in the fleeting minutes of their reply arguments.” Id.

The First District lamented that allowing new arguments to be raised by the appellee at oral argument “could create an incentive for litigants to do so,” forcing appellants to use their “scarce reply time” to respond. Id. “Professionalism dictates to the contrary,” the court observed, “but it happens.” Id.

Ultimately, the First District decided that “the better approach” is “to look askance at the practice of presenting new grounds for affirmance for the first time at oral argument,” and the court rejected the notion that an appellate court must consider issues raised by the appellee for the first time at oral argument. Id. *3. However, the court expressly “stop[ped] short of saying never.” It recognized there may be “[r]are or unusual instances” for considering an issue raised for the first time at oral argument but refused to recognize “an inflexible principle that a court must do so.” Id.