The Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) has sued a Roseville trucking firm and its affiliates, accusing them of pretending to go out of business to lock out union workers and withhold back pay without notice.

The unusual state lawsuit against LME Inc., Finish Line Express and Lakeville Motor Express accuses them of fraud and wage theft. It comes after Lakeville Motor Express in Roseville allegedly abruptly padlocked its doors three days before Thanksgiving, instantly laying off 95 workers.

The company’s union employees and Teamsters officials picketed and alleged that Lakeville Motor, which had addresses in Roseville and New Brighton, merely relocated to Maple Grove. They said the company then began operating under the name Finish Line Express, or FLE, with Lakeville Motor’s nonunion employees.

Finish Line Express denies the allegations.

Mike Sanford, who said he is co-owner of Finish Line Express in Maple Grove along with his wife, insists he didn’t defraud anybody and that there never was cross-ownership between Lakeville Motor Express and Finish Line Express. His LinkedIn page identifies him as the vice president of operations at LME Inc.

But in a phone interview Thursday, Sanford said, “We didn’t have anything at FLE that had anything to do with Lakeville Motor. We are a small company and are just trying to keep our people employed. I feel bad for [the dismissed Lakeville Motor Express union workers], and we have taken a lot of abuse from everywhere,” he said. “But we had nothing to do with [Lakeville Motor Express] letting their people go.”

Other company officials from Lakeville Motor or LME could not be reached for comment.

Teamsters Local 120 filed a complaint against Lakeville Motor with the state of Minnesota. That prompted an investigation by state officials and ultimately the lawsuit filed in Ramsey County District Court on Jan. 19.

“We appreciate the hard work of the department in investigating this case,” said Tom Erickson, president of Teamsters Local 120. “Our members were literally left out in the cold.”

Several locked-out employees said their abrupt dismissal and the company’s refusal to pay them for their last two weeks of work left them unable to pay mortgages or shop for Christmas presents.

State officials said the law requires workers to receive proper notice before being dismissed and said withholding back wages is illegal.

In its lawsuit, the state accused the owners and executives of Lakeville Motor Express and its sister companies, LME and FLE, of fraudulently transferring Lakeville assets to LME/FLE.

“Upon information and belief, Lakeville Motor Express has attempted to dissipate its assets fraudulently to avoid paying employee wages,” the complaint said.

The lawsuit seeks $370,000 in back wages and $154,400 in penalties.

“We take wage theft very seriously,” Labor Commissioner Ken Peterson said. He added that he filed the “lawsuit to get to the bottom of Lakeville Motor Express’ business practices and issued an order for them to pay back wages to affected workers.”

The number of workers involved in this one case and the large amount of money they are owed struck him as sizable, he said.

Based on state and federal data, Minnesota DLI officials estimate that roughly 39,000 workers suffer from some type of wage theft in Minnesota each year. That amounts to $11.9 million that is owed but not paid to Minnesota workers.

A court hearing is expected in the next couple of months.