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Proactive tech considerations in the era of the virtual workplace

The following column was originally published in The Oklahoman on October 4, 2020.


Hilary Hudson Clifton Web

Hilary Hudson Clifton is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters. Click photo to visit her attorney profile.

By Phillips Murrah Attorney Hilary H. Clifton

As thousands of workers continue to clock in remotely each day, many businesses are still learning the ins-and-outs of the virtual collaboration platforms their employees are using.

Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Docs, BlueJeans, Trello, and, of course, the ubiquitous Zoom, are only a few of the programs that have recently evolved from helpful but perhaps underutilized tech tools, to vital aspects of daily operations.

In the rush to adapt to these new realities, however, savvy businesses should be deliberate when selecting and utilizing virtual collaboration tools.

Though only time can play out the range of virtual workplace conduct that might cause headaches for businesses and employers, cautionary tales are emerging. For example, one doctoral student at Stockton University in New Jersey found himself facing potential disciplinary action after using an image of President Trump as his screen background during a class being held via Zoom.

Though his apparent political statement was likely intentional, it’s not difficult to imagine how one might make an inadvertent statement — political or otherwise — via a video conference background.

A controversial book on a bookshelf or a political poster hanging in a home office might become pertinent, for example, in an employee’s suit against a supervisor, or a family photograph of a luxury vacation might raise questions in a collection lawsuit.

In addition, long before the pandemic, businesses have been grappling with managing, storing, and retrieving vast quantities of electronic data.

In the age of telework, the built-in chat functionalities found in many applications allow users to forego traditional email and participate in fast-paced conversation threads that can promote informality and create huge quantities of data that might be mined by opposing parties in litigation.

Video conferencing platforms also often include a “chat” functionality, allowing participants to send private and/or public messages to one another during the course of a meeting, with those chats potentially, and potentially unbeknownst to the participants, becoming part of a memorialized “transcript” following the meeting.

Fortunately, many applications already have built-in features to deal with some of these concerns.

Zoom users can brush up on how to control private “chat” capabilities by visiting the support section of their website. For fans of Microsoft Teams, Microsoft has a page devoted to mining group chats for discoverable content.

To be truly proactive, however, businesses relying heavily on telework should consider implementing an express telework policy that covers the use of video conferencing and other collaboration platforms.

Employers could include policies stating whether video conferences will be recorded, or requiring that employees use a neutral background during business-related conferences (to make marketing lemonade out of pandemic lemons, many companies have created their own branded Zoom backgrounds).

Additionally, having a policy in place that specifies which programs employees are permitted to use for work-related communications can help streamline the retention and retrieval of important data. Though continuing to do business in the midst of Covid-19 can feel like an overwhelming minefield of uncertainties, proactive businesses can nevertheless adapt and thrive by taking control of their virtual workplaces.

Hilary H. Clifton is an attorney at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.

Employers should examine paid parental leave policies

The notorious absence of any federally mandated paid family leave in the United States was a significant issue during the 2016 presidential election. Recent legislative proposals indicate that the issue will only gain steam through 2020 and beyond. Paid parental leave is not a partisan issue, as demonstrated by legislators on both sides of the aisle introducing bills in 2019, including Marco Rubio and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Phillips Murrah litigation attorney Hillary Clifton discusses holiday legal hazards.

Hilary Hudson Clifton is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters. Click photo to visit her attorney profile.

With parental leave policies under particular scrutiny, it is a good idea for employers to examine their existing policies. As it looks ever more likely that paid leave will be federally mandated in the not-too-distant future, now might be the right time for employers without a paid leave policy to consider implementing one.

Though some states have passed laws requiring paid parental leave benefits, Oklahoma is not among them, and employers in Oklahoma currently offering paid leave to new parents do so voluntarily. Still, employers could find themselves in legal trouble if their policies impermissibly distinguish between different classes of parents. For example, while it might be tempting to offer a certain period of paid maternity leave to a mother, and a different period of paternity leave to a father, employers must be careful to draft policies that do not discriminate on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, and other potentially protected categories.

Paid parental leave to care for a new child, sometimes referred to as bonding time, should apply equally to all new parents, including biological mothers and fathers, adoptive parents, and same-sex couples. However, with biological mothers requiring medical attention and recovery time related to pregnancy and childbirth, it is not discriminatory to offer biological mothers an additional period of paid leave, provided the policy specifies that such leave is for the mother’s medical/physical needs.

Increasingly, employers around the country are opting for generous parental leave policies to attract and retain qualified employees. In that regard, employers considering a policy that offers a birth mother significant paid leave for recovery but little time for bonding and childcare might consider whether such a policy could encourage fathers or adoptive parents to look elsewhere for job opportunities.

With no federal or state mandate in Oklahoma, there remains room for any employer to adopt a policy in line with its particular needs and preferences. That said, well-intentioned employers should take measures to avoid inadvertent discrimination in their policies.

Hilary H. Clifton is a litigation attorney with the law firm of Phillips Murrah.


Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on July 18, 2019.

Premise liability and Intellectual property: a sampling of holiday legal woes

As we find ourselves in the midst of another holiday season, it’s a good time to contemplate the joys this time of year brings. For many, that list includes extra time with loved ones, hearty food, and cozy pajamas.

Phillips Murrah litigation attorney Hillary Clifton discusses holiday legal hazards.

Hilary Hudson Clifton is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters. Click the photo to visit her attorney profile.

Hopefully, holiday-specific “legal woes” are less likely to come to mind. Nevertheless, holidays often have their own unique histories of legal issues that few would equate with the brotherly love and fa-la-la-falderal we expect during this “most wonderful time of the year.”

By this time, those who opened their homes and businesses on Halloween hopefully avoided any incidents associated with the spookier part of the season, like haunted house trip-and-falls or home-made cotton-ball sheep costume fires (see Ferlito v. Johnson & Johnson Products, Inc.).

Premises liability, however, remains a major concern for retailers preparing for the onslaught of holiday shoppers. Though most Black Friday retail giants are now well-acquainted with the safety risks associated with enormous sales and even bigger crowds, smaller retailers should be sure to beef up their safety protocol and brush up on premises liability concepts to keep the shopping season incident-free.

In addition to civil liability, failure to adequately cope with Black Friday madness can result in a business being cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, whose “Crowd Management Safety Guidelines for Retailers” can be found online.

Less tangible injuries to intellectual property rights will often arise in connection with holiday-themed entertainment. One case that has been in the news recently involves the Netflix series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (which puts a darker twist on Sabrina the Teenage Witch), and The Satanic Temple’s claim that a statue featured in the show of the goat-headed Baphomet infringes on the Temple’s copyright of its own monument.

There’s also a fair chance that your favorite Christmas carol continues to generate income as someone’s intellectual property – and that someone would like to keep it that way (think the listless bachelor played by Hugh Grant in About A Boy). Of course, many holiday favorites, like Deck the Halls and Silent Night, have become part of the public domain and are perfect for spreading Christmas cheer. Others, like Frosty the Snowman, are still protected by copyright and require a license for public performances.

Finally, if you have any particularly overzealous family members, you might turn the threat of intellectual property litigation to your advantage, by cautioning that their makeshift mistletoe hats infringe on the “mistletoe supporting headband” patented in 1983 or the “Kiss Me” holiday cap patented in 1999.

Though I wouldn’t recommend Grinch-ing up your holiday parties by casually chatting about all the ways one might get sued before the new year, we should all keep in mind that no season is immune from the unfortunate reality of accidents, disagreements and liabilities – no matter how sincere our sentiments of peace on earth and goodwill toward man.


Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on November 21, 2018.

Phillips Murrah sponsors OU Law’s Best Brief Award

Eight 1L students were awarded the Best Brief Award, sponsored by Phillips Murrah, on April 19 at the University of Oklahoma's Competitions and Clinic Awards Luncheon.

Eight 1L students were awarded the Best Brief Award, sponsored by Phillips Murrah, on April 19 at the University of Oklahoma’s Competitions and Clinic Awards Luncheon.

First-year law students in the University of Oklahoma’s College of Law put their studies to the test to compete for the Best Brief Award, sponsored by Phillips Murrah law firm.

“All 1L students at OU Law are required to write an appellate brief in their Legal Writing and Research class, and this brief is later used to argue their case in the 1L Moot Court Competition,” Attorney Kendra M. Norman said.

Following the the 1L Moot Court Competition, top appellate briefs were judged and recognized at The Competitions and Clinic Awards Luncheon on April 19 at Robert S. Kerr Student Lounge on campus.

Norman and Hilary H. Clifton, Phillips Murrah Attorneys and OU Alumnae, represented the Firm in awarding the $5,000 Best Brief Award to the top eight students.

“Writing my first brief took an immense amount of research on the topic as well as meticulous editing and structuring of the brief to maximize the effectiveness and persuasiveness of the legal arguments involved,” Norman said. “It was a new style of writing for me, so I devoted a substantial amount of time to making my brief the very best that I could and learning the intricacies of how to effectively convey legal arguments.”

The $5,000 prize is divided among the winners and is the only OU College of Law writing award with a monetary gift.

“The moot court competition is a very exciting and frequently terrifying right of passage for all first year law students,” Clifton said. “At first, writing the brief seems like an insurmountable task, but it’s such a satisfying feeling to complete your first major piece of legal writing.

“The topics usually involve really interesting topics in Constitutional or criminal law, which is a nice change of pace from the fundamentals you spend most of your time learning as a 1L. My year, the brief was due at noon on St. Patrick’s day, and I remember frantically trying to finish so that I could go celebrate, but I’m pretty sure I spent the rest of the day catching up on sleep instead.”

Norman represents clients in a broad range of transactional matters, and Clifton represents individuals and companies in the Firm’s Litigation Practice Group.

Click here to learn more about the OU College of Law.

Firm Halloween Party raises funds for Harvest Food Drive

Phillips Murrah staff members were given the chance to test their creativity and help raise money for the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma on Tuesday at the Firm’s annual Halloween Party.