Leach defamation suit against alleged victim moves to appeals court

TERLINGUA — As concerns over the coronavirus upend the court system, the defamation suit brought by Jeff Leach against a former employee and alleged assault victim has gained an unexpected second life in appeals court.

After Terlingua hotelier Leach was indicted on a felony sexual assault charge — and a local judge threw out his defamation case against an alleged victim — his lawyers last month appealed the lawsuit to the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso. Those judges on March 26 ordered that the defamation suit could be continued as a personal-injury mediation — meaning a mediator, and not a court judge, could now oversee the case.

The appeals court judges in that case could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for the Eighth Court of Appeals said the court automatically issues orders for mediation, which the other party can then oppose.

Still, the developments have left Jodi Cole, a lawyer for lawsuit defendant and alleged assault victim Katy Milam, feeling blindsided. As she wrote in a court filing last week, the news of the appeal came as she was “extremely ill” with “what appears to be COVID-19.” She had shut down her law practice to comply with quarantine requirements, couldn’t meet with Milam in-person and was too ill to file legal responses, according to her filing.

Last year, Jeff Leach, a self-described diet-and-gut researcher and the founder of Basecamp Terlingua, sued a former employee for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The employee, Katy Milam, told police that Leach allegedly held her down and told her “he gets what he wants.”

That lawsuit — which a local judge threw out in February — brought additional allegations to light. During the case, at least three more women filed affidavits alleging that Leach had sexually assaulted or raped them. Airbnb dropped Basecamp Terlingua from its listings, citing the allegations. And in a criminal case that’s still ongoing, a grand jury indicted Leach in March for felony sexual assault based on the account of one of the alleged victims.

Within days of the lawsuit’s dismissal, Leach’s lawyers announced an intent to appeal. They soon did just that.

Rae Leifeste, a lawyer for Leach, argued in a motion to appeal in March that a Brewster County court had wrongly thrown out the case. Milam’s lawyers had missed filing deadlines, and Leach was never able to present his side of the case, Leifeste argued in the filing.

Milam’s lawyers had introduced evidence they said demonstrated Leach’s character — in 2003, for example, an El Paso court ruled that Leach violated deceptive trade-practice and consumer-protection rules after he reportedly billed people for magazines that never came and a Middle East tour that never materialized. But Leifeste argued these rulings were not “widely known to the public” and therefore should not have excluded Leach from suing for defamation.

Besides, Leifeste argues, Milam’s lawyers did not show Leach had a “well-known reputation for raping, sexually assaulting and harassing others.” And though multiple women came forward with allegations against Leach during the trial, Leifeste writes they have “questionable biases.”

Cole, one of Milam’s lawyers, opposes the appeal, including the request for a personal-injury mediation.

“This is not a personal injury case,” she wrote in a filing last week. “[Leach] sexually harassed and assaulted [Milam], and then sued her for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress when [Milam] reported the conduct to law enforcement.”

Leifeste did not respond to a request for comment on the appeal.