FLORIDA’S TIPSY COACHMAN DOCTRINE
The “tipsy coachman” doctrine displays 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).
Appellate courts can, “affirm a decision from a lower tribunal that reaches the right result for the wrong reasons so long as there is any basis which would support the judgment in the record.” State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Levine, 837 So. 2d 363, 365 (Fla. 2002) (citation and internal quotes omitted).
The term “tipsy coachman” comes from Carraway v. Armour and Co., 156 So. 2d 494 (Fla. 1963), in which the Supreme Court of Florida determined that a deputy commissioner arrived at “a substantially correct conclusion” on a workers’ compensation issue, even though the deputy commissioner incorrectly proceeded under the wrong statute. The 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 . . . .’”
“Retaliation,” was written in 1774 by Oliver Goldsmith, the Irish novelist, playwright, and poet.
The tipsy coachman doctrine—which only pertains to support affirmance, not as a basis for reversal—permits an appellee to argue for affirmance on grounds other than those the trial court relied upon. Adv. Chiro & Rehab Ctr. Corp. v. United Auto. Ins. Co., 103 So. 3d 866, 869 (4th DCA 2012). It is based on the belief that an appellate court may affirm a trial court decision that achieved the right result for the wrong reason. Shands v. Mercury Ins. Co. of Fla., 97 So. 3d 204 (Fla. 2012).
The “key to application of this doctrine of appellate efficiency is that there must have been some support for the alternative theory or principle of law in the record before the trial court.” Robertson v. State, 829 So. 2d 901, 906-907 (Fla. 2002). Because of this, using the tipsy coachman to achieve appellee’s affirmance is sometimes easier said than done.
Where the alternate basis for affirmance is not only legal, but instead contains evidentiary matters, application of the doctrine is based on whether the factual basis supporting the alternate legal theory is in the record. See, e.g., Bueno v. Workman, 20 So. 3d 993, 998 (Fla. 4th DCA 2009) (declining to apply tipsy coachman doctrine to affirm dismissal on ‘fraud on the court’ theory, explaining that trial court “did not make factual findings on the defendant’s fraud argument, [so] it would be inappropriate for us to consider that argument in this appeal.”).
Parallel this with Luciani v. Nealon, 181 So. 3d 1200, 1203 (Fla. 5th DCA 2015) (applying tipsy coachman doctrine to affirm involuntary dismissal where “trial court improperly weighed the evidence and determined that Appellant had not met his burden of proof on any causes of action”; deducing affirmance was warranted because record on appeal confirmed “that Appellant failed to establish a prima facie case as to his causes of action”).
A reviewing court may refuse to apply the doctrine where the alternate basis for affirmance is not sufficiently developed in the record. See Fed. Nat’l Mortg. Ins. Ass’n v. Morton, 196 So. 3d 428 (Fla. 2d DCA 2016) (declining to apply tipsy coachman doctrine to affirm involuntary dismissal where alternative basis for affirmance was pled in movant’s answer but not argued in motion for involuntary dismissal).
In surveying the benefits and detriments of the tipsy coachman principle for appellees, who want the appellate court to affirm an order in their favor, there is a distinction in the scope of permissible arguments for appellees versus appellants. For appellants, “in order for an argument to be cognizable on appeal, it must be the specific contention asserted as legal ground for the objection, exception, or motion below.” Steinhorst v. State, 412 So. 2d 332, 338 (Fla. 1982) (citations omitted). Consequently, for appellants, “the specific legal ground upon which a claim is based must be raised at trial and a claim different than that raised below will not be heard on appeal.” Rodriguez v. State, 609 So. 2d 493, 499 (Fla. 1992). By contrast, appellees are not limited to the arguments that they made in the lower tribunal; “the appellee can present any argument supported by the record even if not expressly asserted in the lower court.” Dade County Sch. Bd. v. Radio Station WQBA, 731 So. 2d 638, 645 (Fla. 1999) (citation omitted).
That statement does not give appellees free rein to make any and every imaginable argument. Appellate courts are obliged to affirm “if upon the pleadings and evidence before the trial court, there was any theory or principle of law which would support the trial court’s judgment.” Cohen v. Mohawk, Inc., 137 So. 2d 222, 225 (Fla. 1962). The Florida Supreme Court has made it clear that “the key to applying the tipsy coachman doctrine is that the record before the trial court must support the alternative theory or principle of law.” State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 837 So. 2d at 365. This is to say, “the appellee’s argument on appeal must be supported by evidence in the record.” State, Dept. of Revenue ex rel. Rochell v. Morris, 736 So. 2d 41, 42 (Fla. 1st DCA 1999) (citation omitted). The tipsy coachman doctrine is limited to cases where the result was “correct for any reason appearing in the record.” Suburban Med. Hosp., Inc. v. Department of Health & Rehab. Servs., 600 So. 2d 1195, 1197 n.3 (Fla. 3d DCA 1992) (citation omitted).
All in all, the tipsy coachman principle is useful for appellees, but there are limitations. Appellants should be able to distinguish if an appellee applies the doctrine inappropriately and should point out the indecency in their reply brief.
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