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Looking for love in all the wrong places

An appellate court will usually affirm or find no error in a trial court action if the result is deemed correct, even if the trial court’s rationale isn’t.  Both State and Federal courts seem to call on this doctrine with some frequency.  Here are just a few of the many similar opinions I found in a cursory search: Perry v. Commonwealth, 280 Va. 372 (2010) (Virginia Supreme Court), U.S. v. US Infrastructure, Inc., 576 F.3d 1195 (11th Cir., 2009), Chisholm Trail Const., L.L.C. v. Mueggeburg, 352 P.3d 2014 (Court of Civil Appeals of Oklahoma, Div.2), State v. Kolbjornsen, 295 Neb. 231 (2016), Lawton v. Dacey, 352 F.2d 61 (1st Cir., 1965).

Let’s take a look at a recent North Carolina application of this “right-result-wrong-reason” doctrine.  The case at hand is In re C.M.B., No. COA18-1002, filed 2 April 2019 (Judge Stroud, joined by Judges Inman and Zachary).  The facts are a tad convoluted, but here’s the short version.  A child was adjudicated neglected by a North Carolina court in 2009 and placed in the custody of a relative.  Over the years, the child and custodian moved to Tennessee and everyone else in the case also moved out of North Carolina.  When the parties filed conflicting motions in the case in 2017, the Tennessee trial court assumed jurisdiction.

Even so, the North Carolina trial court cited the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act to assume “temporary emergency jurisdiction” for the purpose of addressing the motions, consulted with the Tennessee court as provided by the UCCJEA, and then purported to transfer the case to Tennessee.  The mother, whose motions were unsuccessful, filed in North Carolina notice of appeal of the North Carolina trial court’s jurisdiction decision.

The Court of Appeals held that no basis existed in the UCCJEA for the North Carolina court to exercise temporary emergency jurisdiction because no one involved in the case was in North Carolina.  Nevertheless, even though the basis of the North Carolina trial court’s order in favor of the custodian was based on the wrong rationale, the result was correct in that Tennessee kept jurisdiction.  Citing Hughey v. Cloninger, 297 N.C. 86, 253 S.E.2d 898 (1979), the COA affirmed.

Following the trail, we see that Hughey involved the legality of a county’s appropriation to the nonpublic Dyslexia School of North Carolina.  In an opinion relying on an interpretation of the Constitution of North Carolina, the Court of Appeals found that the appropriation was impermissible.  37 N.C. App. 107, 245 S.E.2d 543 (1979). The Supreme Court affirmed, but based its result on statutes rather than the Constitution, noting that “the Court of Appeals reached the right result but for the wrong reason.”  297 N.C. at 95, 253 S.E.2d at 903.

The doctrine goes way back, as indicated by Hughey’s dependence upon State v. Blackwell, 246 N.C. 642, 99 S.E.2d 867 (1957), a citational direct hit where the Supreme Court held that the trial court (there was no COA back then) reached the right result for the wrong reason when it found the issuance of a warrant unconstitutional.  The Supreme Court upheld the quashing of the warrant, but on the grounds that the warrant had been issued under a statute that was a nullity.

Both Hughey and Blackwell avoided the constitutional analysis used by the lower court.  Doing so was consistent with the doctrine that a court will not decide a constitutional question when a case can be resolved on other grounds. See, e.g., State v. Thompson, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___, 801 S.E.2d 689, 696 (2017).  In contrast, the C.M.B. court’s decision involved conflicting interpretations of the pertinent statutes.

The implications of this doctrine are pretty chewy.  But before diving in, I’m going to limit my discussion to instances where the appellate court’s opinion is based on a theory that was not presented by anyone at either the trial or appellate level. In other words, I won’t address cases where the appellee’s brief offered a new perspective to which the appellant could respond in its reply brief.  In that scenario, everyone is at least put on notice, even if the process may sit a little uncomfortably with the notion that a party cannot change its trial theory on appeal. See, e.g., Gilbert v. Thomas, 64 N.C. App. 582, 307 S.E.2d 853 (1983).

Let’s start with a practitioner’s perspective:

  1. Issue preservation.  We’re all had the importance of issue preservation drummed into our heads.  Except where plain error is pleaded in a criminal appeal, the appellate rules require and the appellate courts insist that an issue be brought to the attention trial court so that the judge can have the first crack at it.  Rule of Appellate Procedure 10.  The “right-result-wrong-reason” doctrine undermines this rationale for preservation by allowing the appellate court to decide on a basis that neither party explored before or during trial and that the trial court had no opportunity to flesh out.
  2. Ability to respond.  “Right-result-wrong-reason” is potentially unfair to the losing party, who most likely learns about the appellate court’s rationale when reading the opinion.  I suspect that many a frustrated losing party in that situation would appreciate a chance to respond to the appellate court’s opinion.
  3. Swapping mounts.  If there’s one case appellate courts love to cite, it’s Weil v. Herring, 207 N.C. 6 (1934) with its oft-quoted language that the “law does not permit parties to swap horses between courts in order to get a better mount.”  Yet when an appellate court finds that a lower court reached the right result for the wrong reason, hasn’t that appellate court swapped in its own new horse?

Nevertheless, sound bases exist for the “right-result-wrong-reason” doctrine.

  1. Regularity.  Actions of the trial court enjoy a presumption of regularity, even (maybe especially) when the reason for a trial court’s actions are not spread upon the record. State v. Fennell, 307 N.C. 258 (1982).  This presumption apparently includes the result reached by the trial court, even if that court’s rationale does not stand up to scrutiny.
  2. Economy.  Reviewing courts are swayed by notions of judicial economy.  It seems sensible to affirm or find no error in a case that has reached a bottom-line result that an appellate panel deems sound, even if the courts took different roads to that result.  This consideration is particularly important in cases where finality matters.  Whenever humanly possible, a case involving custody of a toddler needs resolution, not a remand for several more years of relitigation and limbo for the child.
  3. Harmless error.  Appellate courts review outcomes.  In some instances, the supporting opinion may be of particular importance, as when an issue of first impression has arisen and the court elects between majority and minority views.  However, if the reasoning supporting the decision is less significant than the result, no damage is done to the jurisprudence when the reviewing court reaches a “right-result-wrong-reason” conclusion.

The “right-result-wrong-reason” doctrine is too deeply embedded to go away, though the process can be unnerving to the parties involved.  How can a reviewing court cushion the shock?  When that possible resolution arises as a panel considers a case, the judges could ask the parties for additional briefing on the issue the court is contemplating, thus giving the parties notice of the court’s concerns and providing an opportunity to respond.  In a similar vein, I recall participating in cases where the Supreme Court ordered additional briefing and follow-up oral argument on an issue it deemed dispositive after having reviewed the first round of briefing and argument.

If the appellate court does not signal its intent before issuing its opinion, the losing party can petition for reconsideration and rebriefing, a process that has been allowed in the past, see Watson v. Dixon, 132 N.C. App. 329 (1989), or move for an en banc hearing.  In light of the delay and additional expense implied in the former and the rarity (cough) of the latter, though, it’s unlikely any of these options will ever become the default procedure.

I don’t think this topic has been exhausted yet.  Please share your thoughts.

–Bob Edmunds

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