Eric Robinson counters claims in defamation complaint

Robinson contends owner of pain management clinic ‘already had a poor reputation’ prior to dates when Robinson made alleged statements

In his initial response to a defamation lawsuit filed in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court late last year, former Sarasota County School Board member and past Sarasota County GOP chair Eric Robinson contends that July 14 and July 25, 2022 Facebook posts were taken out of context, “as the comments were preceded by disparaging comments about [Robinson] by Paul Sloan,” the plaintiff.

Robinson also denies that he had implied that Sloan sells illegal drugs or that Sloan sells such drugs to children.

In his complaint, filed on Dec. 7, 2022, Sloan, who is the founder, owner and administrator of Sarasota County Pain Management Clinic (PMC), cites the fact that Robinson called him a “Drug dealer” in one of the posts and wrote, “Paul Sloan makes money destroying peoples [sic] lives” in a second one.

The principal of a CPA firm in Venice — Robinson Gruters & Roberts — Robinson has become known in recent years for his involvement in political action committee (PAC) funding of local campaigns, and his firm often handles campaign finance reporting for Republican candidates for elected office.

In his Jan. 9 answer and affirmative defenses to Sloan’s complaint, Robinson contends that Sloan “already had a poor reputation prior to the time that the alleged statements purportedly made by [Robinson] as set in [the complaint] were made.”

Further, the answer says, “Any statements made by [Robinson] were fair comment on a matter of public interest” or “expressions of pure opinion.”

Moreover, Robinson argues that since Sloan is a public figure, Sloan “must thus prove by clear and convincing evidence the existence of actual malice” on Robinson’s part. Robinson denies having written the statements with actual malice.

Sloan’s lawsuit points out that the July 14, 2022 Facebook post was on a page representing candidate Dawnyelle Singleton, who was running against incumbent Bridget Ziegler for a Sarasota County School Board seat. Although the School Board races are nonpartisan, Ziegler was among numerous School Board candidates statewide who won endorsements last year from Gov. Ron DeSantis. Her husband, Christian Ziegler, has been vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida for the past several years.

Singleton lost to Ziegler in the Aug. 23, 2022 Primary Election, with Ziegler garnering 56.34% of the votes.

Part of Robinson’s post said, “The fact that a Drug dealer is supporting a candidate [Singleton] tells me everything I need to know.”

The July 25, 2022 post — which was on the Sarasota County School District’s Transparency Project page — is the one in which Sloan alleges that Robinson wrote about Sloan destroying people’s lives.

Subsequently, in a Sept. 16, 2022 Facebook post on a Sarasota Herald-Tribunepage, Sloan pointed to another statement that Robinson allegedly made: “Paul Sloan (tagged) aren’t you the guy who peddled pain killers to little children?”

In his Jan. 9 answer, Robinson denies having written that post.

Among other affirmative defenses, Robinson contends that his Facebook comments “are not capable of defamatory effect.”

In his complaint, Sloan says he “is the official point of contact (POC) on [18] U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration Controlled Substance Licenses.” Therefore, he contends, Robinson’s social media statements “threaten [Sloan’s] livelihood.”

Sloan adds that his pain clinic has been licensed by the Florida State Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) since 2009 and that it was the first pain management clinic to receive such authority. The AHCA is “the same agency that licenses hospitals in Florida,” the lawsuit explains, noting that the clinic still holds that license.

Further, from 2007 to 2012, the complaint continues, Sloan worked with sheriff’s office detectives from six counties, who were tracking prescription drug diversion. Sloan provided them information “that resulted in the arrest of dozens of … suspects, many actually being taken out of his clinic in handcuffs,” the complaint adds.

In 2010, the complaint says, Sloan proposed a pain clinic moratorium to the Sarasota County commissioners, “which they enacted quickly.” Further, the complaint points out, he requested that the commissioners “pass a resolution to be delivered to the Governor, supporting the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) that the Governor was threatening to end.” The commissioners, the complaint adds, “passed this resolution in record time.”

Moreover, the lawsuit says, Sloan drafted the language that ended up comprising “the core of the Sarasota Pain Clinic Ordinance.”

Sloan’s attorney in the case is Robert E. Turffs, whose eponymous firm is located in Sarasota.

Robinson’s attorney is Patrick J. Reilly of the Snyder & Reilly firm in Venice.

Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Hunter W. Carroll, who is presiding over the case, has scheduled a mandatory, initial case management conference for the parties on April 28 at the South County Courthouse, which is on the grounds of the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice. The address is 4004 S. Tamiami Trail.

Carroll’s Dec. 12, 2022 document adds that, based on the report of that session, he “will enter a Case Management Order, a Trial Order, or both.”

Moreover, Carroll explains that the case has been designated as a “general track” proceeding. With such a designation, the form notes, cases in which jury trials are planned “should be disposed of within 18 months of filing,” while non-jury cases “should be disposed of within 12 months of filing,” as outlined in the Florida rules regarding general practice and judicial administration.

The cover sheet for Sloan’s complaint shows that he demanded a jury trial.