Joseph Saveri (Photo by Jason Doiy/ALM)

San Francisco’s Joseph Saveri Law Firm, a specialist in antitrust class actions, has prevailed in a dispute with another plaintiffs firm over fees from a price fixing case that settled in 2013 for $163.5 million.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in the Saveri firm’s favor on Monday, shooting down a bid by Miami’s Criden & Love for additional fees from an underlying antitrust case in Maryland federal court that accused titanium dioxide suppliers of fixing prices. The fee dispute began after a class settlement in the antitrust litigation that led to a $54 million award for plaintiffs lawyers involved in the case.

Criden & Love had argued that it deserved a referral fee from Joseph Saveri, a former Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein partner who split off in 2012 to start his own firm. But the appeals court held that Saveri, who served as lead counsel in the price fixing case, never actually entered a referral agreement with Criden & Love and had no obligation to pay.

“The appellant [Criden & Love] asserts a number of claims in this case, all of which ask for the same thing: a referral fee payment from Saveri’s law firm,” the Fourth Circuit wrote in a per curiam opinion. “There is simply no basis on this record for finding the appellant entitled to such a payment.”

In reaching its decision, the appeals court first walked through the basics of referral fee arrangements among plaintiffs lawyers. The court explained that antitrust legal precedent allows only consumers who purchased goods or services from a supplier to challenge alleged anti-competitive conduct on that supplier’s part.

Because many buyers are hesitant to sue their suppliers and potentially disrupt their businesses, there’s a relative shortage of plaintiffs for antitrust class actions, the Fourth Circuit continued. Firms such as Criden & Love “step into the void,” finding purchasers willing to sue and referring them to larger antitrust specialist firms that have the resources to pursue a major class action. Criden & Love, in turn, typically earns a referral fee equal to 12.5 percent of whatever the larger firm earns.

In this case, Criden & Love in 2010 referred a purchaser of titanium dioxide, a substance used in paints and inks, to Lieff Cabraser and a second plaintiffs firm, Berger & Montague. At the time, Saveri was still at Lieff Cabraser and entered an appearance on behalf of the referred client, a business called Isaac Industries.

Saveri left Lieff Cabraser in 2012 to start his own firm, effectively ending his representation of Isaac Industries as an individual client, and his firm later filed an appearance for another titanium dioxide purchaser called Breen Color Concentrates, the Fourth Circuit wrote.

Saveri eventually became co-lead plaintiffs counsel in the price fixing litigation, alongside Lieff Cabraser and Cera LLP. When the case settled in 2013 for some $163.5 million, it opened the door for a sizable fee award. In all, the plaintiffs lawyers made $54 million and Saveri, as lead counsel, earned about $10 million of that, the Fourth Circuit wrote.

Criden & Love, for its part, took in about $2.8 million, with $900,000 of that coming as referral fees from Lieff Cabraser and Berger & Montague. But the firm believed Saveri, too, owed Criden & Love a referral payment, setting off a string of legal proceedings that led to Monday’s ruling.

The Fourth Circuit found that Saveri explicitly did not enter a referral deal with the other plaintiffs firm, and that Saveri’s $10 million in lead counsel fees compensated him only for his work once he was at his new firm and had left Lieff Cabraser.

“Saveri’s relationship to Isaac Industries was identical to his relationship to all other class members; he never represented the company’s individual interest,” the Fourth Circuit wrote. “That role continued to be filled by his old firm, Lieff Cabraser, which paid C&L the full fee the firm was owed.”

Saveri said on Tuesday that he felt “entirely vindicated and justified” in the position he and his firm took in the fee litigation. The titanium dioxide settlement marked one of his firm’s first major results after its launch, and Criden & Love’s claim for fees served as a distraction during the firm’s early days, he added.

“This brings the end to a long and meritless dispute with the Criden & Love firm,” Saveri said. “It’s unfortunate because in the underlying case, it was one of our firm’s first cases, and we obtained a really good result for the class.”

Kevin Love of Criden & Love, who argued the Fourth Circuit appeal for his firm, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.