Impacts from the Essar Steel Minnesota bankruptcy continue to reverberate. The latest twist emerged Thursday in a lawsuit against Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., an unsuccessful early bidder for Essar’s former assets.
Mesabi Metallics Company LLC, a newer business name for the one-time Essar mine and processing plant, filed the civil suit contending Cliffs has interfered with its contractual and business relationships and violated Minnesota antitrust laws.
In a complaint attached to the bankruptcy case, the plaintiff argues Cliffs has long coveted the mineral rights at the Nashwauk mine and engaged in illegal attempts to obstruct Mesabi Metallics from consummating a reorganization plan for the Nashwauk mine and processing plant that Essar partially completed before seeking bankruptcy protection.
Cliffs said it does not issue public comments in reaction to pending lawsuits.
In the lawsuit complaint, Mesabi Metallics alleges Cliffs “has unabashedly resorted to contacting Mesabi’s contractors, mineral lessors, professionals, other goods and service providers, and potential customers with a single, but effective threat: if you do business with Mesabi … Cliffs won’t do business with you. The defendants’ efforts to interfere with Mesabi’s affairs have caused significant delay and additional unnecessary expense as Mesabi seeks to consummate the Plan. They also constitute acts to obtain possession of or exercise control over property of the Debtors’ estates, in violation of Section 362 of the Bankruptcy Code.”
As the bankruptcy proceeding advanced, Cliffs eventually withdrew from the bidding process. The court named Chippewa Capital Partners the successful bidder. Chippewa is working with Mesabi to resume construction of the project.
“Mesabi and Chippewa have made material progress and taken major steps toward implementing the (reorganization) Plan,” Mesabi Metallics says in the lawsuit. However, the plaintiff argues, “Cliffs’ actions have already caused delays, forced the debtors to renegotiate agreements with multiple parties in interest, and required Mesabi to seek to engage alternative service providers.”
Mesabi listed multiple allegations in its civil complaint:
• Cliffs repeatedly pressured the state of Minnesota to terminate the Mesabi’s mineral leases, threatening to walk away from any potential project on the site unless the state terminated those leases.
• Cliffs repeatedly disparaged the debtors in written correspondence with the DNR and Gov. Mark Dayton.
• Cliffs’ lobbyists contacted the DNR and the governor’s office to criticize the Mesabi’s attempts to get letters of support from lessors and vendors, commenting that “this effort by (debtors) to pressure these contractors stands as yet one more example of that company’s questionable ethics and business practices.”
• After the winning bid was awarded to Chippewa, Cliffs “threatened to withhold its business from various of Mesabi’s key contractors, engineers, professionals and potential customers to prevent them from doing business with Mesabi. These contractors, engineers, and professionals are essential to bringing Mesabi’s iron ore pellet production facilities online.” Specifically, Mesabi alleges Barr Engineering backed away with a contract with Chippewa Capital Partners “…due to threats and pressures from Cliffs … that if Barr continued to work with Mesabi, Cliffs would cease doing current and future work with Barr.”
• Northern Industrial Erectors was denied future work for Cliffs because NIE agreed to work with Mesabi Metallics.
• The Environmental Law Group “resigned from its representation of Mesabi, effective June 1, 2017, citing the instructions of Cliffs, a presumably larger client, as its reason for resignation.”
Mesabi Metallics seeks financial damages, as determined by the court at trial, and a court order prohibiting Cliffs from “engaging in unlawful conduct and continuing violations of the antitrust laws.” It also seeks reimbursement for legal costs.