Four people have filed a lawsuit alleging a former co-owner of Buffalo Exchange’s Colorado franchise created a toxic-workplace culture, including rampant harassment and sexual assault, and that other owners allowed and encouraged his actions.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Denver District Court and seeks class-action status. It accuses Todd Colletti, who was the “primary manager” of the company’s Colorado stores, according to the complaint, of verbally and physically abusing his employees as well as sexually assaulting multiple employees.
The suit alleges Colletti converted the basement of the chain’s former store on Broadway in Denver into a bar for parties, where he set up a darkroom to take nude photographs of employees and other party attendees. Colletti also allegedly “did a lot of cocaine” both while the store was open and after hours, the lawsuit said.
In a virtual news conference Tuesday announcing the lawsuit, plaintiffs and lawyers condemned Colletti’s actions and the complacency of the company’s other owners.
“This is no one’s fault except for Todd and the people in power that enabled him,” said Clara Pruess, a plaintiff who worked at a Buffalo Exchange in Denver in 2016. Colletti also allegedly assaulted Clara’s sister Amanda, another plaintiff in the case.
The lawsuit comes almost a year after an anonymous Instagram account, @buffalo.in.the.room, started posting stories of assault, harassment and discrimination that exployees experienced at the company’s Colorado locations.
The franchise closed its three Colorado stores soon after the Instagram account was started. Buffalo Exchange’s corporate office, which is in Arizona, also revoked the Colorado franchise’s rights to use the Buffalo Exchange brand and name, 303 Magazine reported last year. Previous allegations had surfaced in comments on the company’s Instagram in 2018, leading the non-profit Good Business Colorado to reject the company’s membership to the organization.
In addition to Colletti, the lawsuit names Justin Van Houten, Victor Cortes and Katherine Plache as defendants, as well as Buffalo Exchange Ltd. and Tatanka Inc. The lawsuit also names Scout Dry Goods Colorado LLC, which is in the former Denver shop location; Forgotten Works LLC, which was in the Denver store’s annex location briefly; and Watermelon Sugar, which filled the Boulder retail space for a short time last fall. Those three stores appear to be registered under the Tatanka umbrella.
Colletti is a longtime friend of Buffalo Exchange co-founder Kerstin Block’s, according to the lawsuit. Ben Lebsack, lead lawyer on the complaint, shared an email included in the filing during Tuesday’s news conference that Block sent to Colletti in which she took Colletti’s side in the ordeal.
In contrast, corporate leadership had sent an email to employees last summer saying they “stand with the victims of this horrifying situation” involving Colletti. The lawsuit claims internal complaints about Colletti were often forwarded to him directly or to co-owners Van Houten, Cortes and Plache.
“Buffalo Exchange stood in solidarity with Mr. Colletti for over 20 years, encouraging and fostering an environment where Mr. Colletti could sexually assault his employees without consequence,” Lebsack said.
The legal claims in the lawsuit include outrageous conduct; violating state anti-discrimination laws; physical and sexual assault; battery; and negligence. At least one class has already been defined as Buffalo Exchange’s Colorado employees “who were subject to a hostile work environment based on sex” in the months prior to Dec. 23, 2015. The suit seeks 11 claims of relief in part through financial compensation, including unpaid wages.
The statute of limitations for filing civil sexual assault charges in Colorado is six years, which limits who can be considered as part of the case’s defined class. Still, other former employees have come forward in support of the case. Megan Parker, who worked at a Denver Buffalo Exchange for five years, shared her experience at the news conference. Colletti groomed her as a mentee, she said, before getting her drunk and sexually assaulting her.
“I am one of the many, many people who will be hoping to glean some semblance of justice from this legal action,” Parker said Tuesday.
The Denver Police Department investigated claims against Colletti last year, but Westword reported that some potential accusers were skeptical that they would be taken seriously and feared being retraumatized in the process. The Denver District Attorney’s Office decided in December not to press charges against Colletti, saying they could not prove allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.
Buffalo Exchange corporate would not comment on the lawsuit Tuesday but noted that the Colorado franchise had separate ownership, according to a statement sent through a spokesperson. “We did not have control over their business operations, hiring, employee documentation, or terminations, including access to employee records or paperwork such as exit interviews. We were not the employer of any of the individuals asserting claims,” the statement said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. on May 11, 2021 to correct that the Colorado franchise owners closed the three Colorado stores. The story was also updated to include a statement from Buffalo Exchange’s corporate office.