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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – One Sunday morning in May 2021, the lives of Courtney Ashley’s family and friends changed forever. That morning, Courtney Ashley, 35, known as “Coco,” and Brian Anthony Adkins, 34, were shot to death while walking her dog at Brother Bryan Park in Birmingham’s Five Points South.
Now, more than a year later, Ashley’s family is headed toward a trial of an entirely different kind.
Last week, Ashley’s estate, headed by her aunt, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that Jason Bajalieh, a co-owner of Slice Pizza & Brew, sexually harassed her, leading to a hostile work environment that left Ashley with no choice but to quit her job. A lawyer for the Birmingham-based pizzeria denied the allegations outlined in the lawsuit, claiming instead that Ashley wore provocative clothes to work and had been “hitting on” Bajalieh.
The 14-page lawsuit alleges that during her time working at Slice’s Birmingham location, Ashley was the victim of repeated and worsening sexual harassment at the hands of Jason Bajalieh, one of the business’ co-owners.
Jason Bajalieh began making inappropriate comments toward Ashley beginning in October 2020, according to the lawsuit. These comments, the lawsuit alleges, “became increasingly aggressive and inappropriate” around the beginning of November 2020.
On one occasion, the lawsuit claims, Bajalieh followed Ashley into a dark alley, grabbed her from behind, and pulled her towards him.
“Jason Bajalieh then forcibly stuck his tongue down Courtney Ashley’s throat and grabbed her buttocks,” the complaint said.
On another occasion, Bajalieh “put his hands between Courtney Ashley’s legs and told her he wanted to ‘find out what she feels like,’” according to the federal lawsuit.
Ashley complained about the inappropriate comments and unwanted sexual advances to a general manager, the lawsuit said, but no action was taken against Bajalieh, and the harassment continued.
Because of this, Ashley felt she had no choice and resigned in mid-November, the lawsuit claims.
Andrew C. Allen, an attorney for Slice, said in a phone interview with CBS 42 that the allegations outlined in the lawsuit are not true. Allen said that Ashley worked for Slice intermittently during 2019 and 2020, working a total of 44.4 hours over a few months and earning $93 plus tips.
“Our understanding is that she made no effort to find employment after she voluntarily separated from her workplace,” Allen said, later adding that he believes “somebody is out to get some money.”
Allen confirmed that Ashley complained to the restaurant’s general manager about Bajalieh’s behavior but said that the manager’s investigation led to no evidence that such inappropriate behavior had occurred.
“I’ve talked to Mr. Bajalieh about the allegations and he vehemently denies any of the things she alleges occurred,” he said.
Instead, Allen claimed that Ashley wore “provocative clothes” to work and was engaging in behavior that management found inappropriate.
Asked about the relevance of such information, Allen said Ashley’s allegedly “flirtatious” behavior may provide a “valid” defense to her estate’s claims of a hostile work environment.
“Consent is an issue,” he said. “Whether her flirtatious behavior invited some kind of interaction.”
Legal rulings on the federal level, Allen argued, “require more than stray comments and they require more than some physical touching” to establish an illegal, hostile work environment existed.
Even if the allegations outlined in the lawsuit are true, Allen argued, they do not rise to the legal standard required to prove a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment.
Allen also said that serious legal questions are at play involving whether Ashley’s claim can survive beyond her death. His client is also constitutionally entitled to confront its accuser, he argued, a reality that Ashley’s death has complicated.
“I don’t want to disparage this woman, either by reputation or otherwise,” Allen said. “But I can’t recommend to a client that they pay a bunch of money for no reason.”
Ashley, a Mobile native, had lived in Birmingham for only a few years before her death.
“Coco was passionate about many things, including volunteering, activism, cooking, handmaking jewelry, bailing friends out of jail, giving away the spare change she needed, roasting people, getting in fender benders, and music,” her obituary said. “She was a giver. Coco had the ability to bring light to your life by making you laugh, crying with you if you needed it, or simply showing you that you are worthy of love, no matter your story.”
CBS 42 reached out to lawyers representing Ashley’s estate regarding Allen’s claims but has not heard back as of Monday evening.