Arizona-based Buffalo Exchange and former Colorado franchise co-owner Patrick Todd Colletti are among those being sued by four former employees nearly ten months after dozens of accusations of sexual assault and harassment, verbal abuse, physical assault and workplace cocaine use surfaced on the Instagram account Buffalo in the Room in late July 2020.
The eleven claims in the lawsuit, filed in Denver on May 11 by Lowrey Parady Lebsack, LLC, include allegtions of sexual assault, unlawful sexual contact, assault and battery, along with class-action violations of Colorado's anti-discrimination laws.
Shortly after the accusations against Colletti surfaced last summer, Buffalo Exchange's Arizona offices severed ties with the Colorado franchise stores in Boulder and Denver and stripped them of the right to use the brand name.
Three co-owners of the Denver and Boulder stores — Justin Van Houten, Victor Cortes and Katherine Plache — cut ties with Colletti and on August 4 laid off the shops' employees, closing Buffalo Exchange Colorado for good. In the wake of the accusations, one employee died by suicide.
The lawsuit also names Van Houten, Cortes and Plache, as well as companies owned by the trio, including Forgotten Works LLC, Tatanka Inc, Watermelon Sugar LLC and Scout Dry Goods Colorado LLC.
Scout, the second store in Omaha-entrepreneur Kelly Valentine's recycled fashion chain that took inspiration from Buffalo Exchange and opened in Denver in January, inherited the Buffalo Exchange Colorado inventory and also hired former Buffalo Exchange workers, including managers; it's co-owned by Van Houten, Cortes and Plache.
Valentine, who describes the trio as "silent partners," is not named as a defendant. Though she knows Plache and Van Houten, who has a not-so-silent role at Scout as chief financial officer, Valentine says she has never met Cortes.
Speaking on their behalf as the head of Scout, Valentine notes that the co-owners have declined to comment on the case. But she has plenty to say.
"I didn’t sign up to take on the sins of the past owners," she says. As for the suit, whose filing this morning came as a surprise, Valentine says, "I’m taken off-guard a little bit. I’m committed to a different culture, and we recently, just last Monday, did close down to have an HR training. It was all day...
"All decisions are my final decision," she continues. "I’m really committed to having a new culture. It’s a new company. This is a new time frame. I don’t want it to be a Band-Aid. No, we're not going to do this again. We’re taking actions to make sure it’s a safe place for all employees."
The suit details accusations against Colletti that include sexually assaulting and harassing three of the plaintiffs and physically assaulting and verbally harassing all four. The filing claims that Buffalo Exchange Corporate and Colletti's co-owners failed to respond to accusations of rape, harassment and assault connected with the business.
While Colletti has not responded to a request for comment, Buffalo Exchange's corporate office offered the following statement on the suit: "We cannot comment on a legal filing that we have not seen. The Colorado franchise stores were owned by Justin Van Houten, Kathy Plache and other investors. 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 Denver Police Department investigated some of the complaints that had been made public, and turned the results of their investigation over to Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, whose office declined to prosecute anyone in connection with the accusations.
Meanwhile, the attorneys who filed the complaint had reached out to some of the people making accusations last summer, and ultimately heard from about twenty former employees of Buffalo Exchange Colorado.
"Speaking with all of these now-former employees, [Colletti] sexually assaulted a lot of people, and that's awful," says Ben Lebsack, an attorney with Lowrey Parady Lebsack. "And, you know, from what I just call rape to sexually assaulting people in the store by grabbing them and all of that. But even the folks who were not subject to that were still subjected to sexual, sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic comments."
The result was the class-action claims in the suit; the class could include almost anyone employed by Buffalo Exchange's Colorado stores, Lebsack explains.
"I think nearly every employee who worked at that store was subject to a hostile work environment," Lebsack says. "The most common phrase we heard speaking with our clients and the witnesses early on was — and they would tell you — 'That's just Todd being Todd.'"
That phrase, which has been shared with Westword by many of Colletti's former employees and longtime friends, defined the workplace culture, they say. According to Lebsack, "That really seems to be how the other owners and how Buffalo Exchange views the situation: 'It's just Todd being Todd. It's not going to come back on us. So let's not do anything.'"
Many of the assaults were alleged to have taken place at parties in a basement bar that Colletti built at the shop at 51 Broadway. While co-owners expressed their concern and even shut down the parties for short periods of time, they eventually knowingly allowed them to continue, the lawsuit claims, adding that although they were made aware of Colletti's assaults and harassing behavior, they chose not to take action against him until their franchise agreement was at risk. And they had been aware of accusations against Colletti long before the Instagram account went live in July.
The complaint cites a January 2020 email from co-owner Cortes to the other owners and managers, in which he openly admits to knowing about issues of underage drinking and drugs and the dangers of the parties. His ultimate concern: Would those misdeeds tank the business?
"I continue to feel that events and parties in the basement are just asking for trouble," Cortes wrote. "Issues like under age [sic] drinking, drugs, employee issues, fires, permit or occupancy limits, etc. could really take us down. Don't think it's worth it. In the past you just shut down the bar and limited any access for parties but now I understand that it's happening again with regularity. What are your thoughts? Is this something that you think should continue? If so, what precautions can we put into place to protect us - both in terms of liability (like insurance) but also with the Buffalo and our franchise agreement. I know you've been worried about this and it seems that any more employee incidents could put them over the edge. Interested in your thought[s] and potential solutions."
Lebsack says that he's proud of the people who shared their experiences on Instagram and with his team. "The employees who came forward and the non-employee women who came forward — that took a lot of bravery to do, because they had seen over the years that you complain and nothing happens," Lebsack notes.
"And despite that, these people put together the Instagram account, knowing there could be serious repercussions both related to their work at Buffalo Exchange, their ability to get other jobs in Denver, [and] to be able to work in this community, the South Broadway community. You know how many friends he has?" Lebsack continues.
"It really signals a change from seven or eight years ago, before the Me Too movement," he adds. "I think the more people who come forward...the more that other people say: 'No, I don't have to accept this. I can do something about this.'"
At a virtual press conference on May 11 after the lawsuit was filed, three of the plaintiffs and another former employee shared their stories.
Amanda Pruess, one of the plaintiffs, worked at Buffalo Exchange on and off from 2010 to 2016. “During that time, mostly when I worked in the Broadway store, Todd pinched me, poked me, ridiculed me, shamed me and gaslit me,” she recalled. “He called me fat when I had gained some weight, ugly when I wasn't wearing makeup, and stupid when I made a mistake. He saved the compliments for when I was drunk. He assaulted me twice, and when I avoided him afterwards, he labeled me ‘prude.’ That's when I realized how often he assaulted other people, too...
“Todd twisted things so that it seemed like the quickest way into the inner circle was by getting assaulted," she continued. "This was the norm. We all made jokes about it. His habits, his penchant for drugs and younger women, how he was artistic in his ability to pounce right when girls were most vulnerable after a breakup or a family death. This was the norm. All of this was the norm. Imagine how hard it was to accept daily belittlement, harassment and assault as the norm.”
Amanda's sister, Clara Pruess, worked at Buffalo Exchange in 2016. “Over the seven months I worked there, I saw the harassment of many employees, including myself, nudity, drug consumption, and public embarrassment of employees,” she said. “This all accumulated in the assault of my sister.
“Todd normalized this within Buffalo Exchange, grooming us the very first day we began,” she added. “On my first day, he referred to having a threesome with my sister." When Clara told people what he had said, they laughed it off, saying, “It’s Todd being Todd." They also told her that "Nothing good happens in the basement after midnight," she recalled.
According to Amanda Pruess, the basement bar was covered with naked pictures of ex-employees, and it was there that many of the incidents allegedly took place.
“The first time he assaulted me was in 2015 in the basement bar,” said former employee and plaintiff Alyssa Detert, who worked at Buffalo Exchange from 2012 through July 2020. “I came to in the middle of the assault, and he told me to relax. It wasn't the last time he assaulted me.”
Clara Preuss said that Colletti manipulated the community into believing Buffalo Exchange was a positive force in Denver — a notion she has spent the past five years trying to refute. “Buffalo Exchange and Todd are not the first to enable and benefit from a system of silence and normalization, and they certainly won't be the last," she added. "But it's a step. To anyone harmed by Patrick Todd Colletti and Buffalo Exchange, I hope you're able to find some sort of resolution out of this, or at the very least, you can cross them off of the people and places to warn others about.”
Update: An earlier version of this story stated Kelly Valentine had not met Katherine Plache; Valentine clarified that they had met. A statement from Buffalo Exchange's corporate office has also been added, as have the comments from the plaintiffs. Alyssa Detert's quote has been corrected.
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