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Judge rules to dismiss defamation lawsuit against Battie

The judge rules that Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Battie was acting in his capacity as an elected official and is immune from civil action for comments made about resident Kelly Franklin.


The motion from Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Battie (pictured in October 2022) to dismiss a defamation suit brought by resident Kelly Franklin was granted.
The motion from Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Battie (pictured in October 2022) to dismiss a defamation suit brought by resident Kelly Franklin was granted.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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Sarasota City Commissioner Kyle Battie’s motion to dismiss a civil defamation suit filed by resident Kelly Franklin has been granted by Judge Stephen Walker of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court.

On Wednesday, Walker issued his ruling dismissing all five counts brought by Franklin, stemming from a Jan. 16 City Commission meeting at which Battie based a discussion on what Franklin called a hoax social media post portraying her as a racist. 

At that meeting, Battie produced a crumpled printout of the alleged post of a ribbon cutting at Corona Cigar Bar depicting himself and business owners beneath a caption that read, “Gorillas in the midst of being gorillas are on my mind lately.”

Franklin called the post, which could not be found on her Facebook feed, a rudimentary mash-up perpetuated by an unknown party, What could be found on her social media account, though, were photos from a 2022 African photo safari with that same caption accompanying multiple images of gorillas in the wild.

In his ruling, Walker grouped together four counts — defamation, defamation per se, defamation by implication and conspiracy to defame — citing precedent guided by Grady v. Scaffe that reads:

“As far as public officials are concerned, [i]t seems to be well settled in this State that words spoken or written by public servants in judicial and legislative activities are protected by absolute privilege from liability for defamation. However false or malicious or badly motivated the accusation may be, no action will lie therefore in this State. Nor is it questioned that such absolute immunity in this State extends to county and municipal officials in legislative or quasi-legislative activities.”

Although Franklin claimed Grady does not control because "Battie was acting beyond the scope of his employment or function as a City Commissioner,” Walker ruled otherwise, as Battie’s remarks were made under a scheduled agenda discussion item titled “Civility, Respect and Rhetoric.” 

As for the fifth count — intentional infliction of emotional distress — having found Battie immune to civil litigation on the first four counts, Walker cited the precedent established in the 1995 case of Goetz v. Noble, writing, “Defendant's alleged actionable conduct supporting counts I through IV, and for which this Court determined he is immune from suit for defamation, is likewise protected against a claim reframed as intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

“We are pleased with the Court’s order granting Commissioner Battie’s motion to dismiss and finding that Commissioner Battie is not liable for defamation," Brian Goodrich, Battie's attorney, told the Observer. "We are hopeful that this represents an end to this unnecessary and misdirected litigation, and that Commissioner Battie can continue to focus on the city of Sarasota.”

According to the order, Franklin has 20 days to file an amended pleading. She told the obserer her attorney, Richard Harrison of Tampa, is weighing their options.

"Public office is a public trust, and does not come with a license to lie to the public about the public in order to advance private business interests," Franklin said. "Kyle Battie knowingly participated in a plot to publicly defame a private citizen on completely fabricated and racially incendiary grounds."

This article was updated to include comments from Kelly Franklin.

 

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Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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