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Efficiency programs help reduce energy load, costs

The following column was originally published in The Journal Record on June 30, 2020.


Eric Davis

Eric Davis is an attorney in the Firm’s Clean Energy Practice Group and the Government Relations and Compliance Practice Group. He represents clients in a range of regulatory and energy matters.

By Phillips Murrah Attorney C. Eric Davis

Summer’s here. That means warmer weather – and higher electric bills. However, there are ways to reduce your energy usage and save money. And chances are your utility company already has programs in place to help you do it.

If you’re unfamiliar with these programs, you’re not alone. Most people don’t think to turn to their electric company to learn how to use less energy. But in fact, utilities across the state, including Oklahoma’s two largest, have a variety of programs to help consumers avoid energy waste and lower their bills. Despite their effectiveness, many customers are unaware of these programs, and this knowledge gap was a topic of discussion at a recent multi-day Town Hall held by statewide nonprofit The Oklahoma Academy. The conclusions from the Town Hall were subsequently announced at a press conference with elected officials.

At the press conference, The Oklahoma Academy released recommendations concerning the state’s energy future. These included increasing Oklahomans’ awareness of energy efficiency and demand response programs that are designed to avoid energy waste or shift energy usage to times when the grid is less strained. The aim of the programs is to reduce utilities’ overall electricity demand, which has several benefits. One, it reduces the need, thus expense, for utilities to build additional generation plants and power lines. As a result, associated environmental impacts are reduced and customers’ electricity bills decrease. Moreover, dollar for dollar, experts consider these programs to be among the most cost-effective investments for utilities to serve their load.

So, what types of programs are available? Depending on your utility, you may be eligible to have an energy efficiency consultant visit your home, have your HVAC system tuned up, or even have your home weatherized. Likewise, specialized energy efficiency and demand response programs may be available to commercial and industrial customers, such as rebates for upgrading to more efficient heating, cooling, and lighting systems, or lower rates for customers who shift energy usage to periods when the electric system has more capacity.

Because the costs of these services may be spread among all customers, many times there is no additional cost for those taking advantage of them. So, take the advice of The Oklahoma Academy and explore what programs are out there. You can save money, help the environment, and give the grid a break.

Eric Davis is an attorney at Phillips Murrah and a member of The Oklahoma Academy. Davis also participated in The Oklahoma Academy’s town hall on Oklahoma’s energy future.

CARES Act and independent contractors – How businesses can mitigate risk related to CARES Act unemployment claims

By Phillips Murrah Attorney Martin J. Lopez III 

Below is an expanded version of a Gavel to Gavel column that appeared in The Journal Record on May 14, 2019.

attorney Martin J Lopez III

Martin J. Lopez III is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters.

Businesses should identify and mitigate risk related to CARES Act independent contractor unemployment claims

In response to the COVID-19 national emergency, Congress has taken the extraordinary measure to allow independent contractors, gig-workers, and self-employed individuals access to unemployment insurance benefits for which they are generally ineligible. This article is geared towards businesses that regularly use independent contractors who may file claims for unemployment insurance benefits—discussing the risks involved and how businesses can mitigate those risks.

Background Regarding Relevant CARES Act Provisions

On March 27, 2020 President Trump signed into law the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”). Among other provisions, the CARES Act significantly expands the availability of unemployment insurance benefits to include workers affected by the COVID-19 national public health emergency who would not otherwise qualify for such benefits—including independent contractors. This increased accessibility to unemployment insurance benefits theoretically provides an avenue for a state unemployment agency to find an independent contractor applicant to be an employee. Such a finding introduces the risk of the state unemployment agency assessing unpaid employment and payroll taxes for those a business previously treated as independent contractors. Tangentially, such a finding could serve to establish or bolster independent contractors’ claims in wage and hour litigation.

To qualify as a “covered individual” under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (“PUA”) provisions of the CARES Act, a self-employed individual must self-certify that she is self-employed, is seeking part-time employment, and does not have sufficient work history or otherwise would not qualify for unemployment benefits under another state unemployment program. Further, the self-employed individual must certify that she is otherwise able to work and is available for work within the meaning of applicable state law, but is “unemployed, partially unemployed or unable or unavailable to work” because of one of the following COVID-19 related reasons:

  • The individual has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
  • A member of the individual’s household has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
  • The individual is providing care for a family member or member of the individual’s household who has been diagnosed with COVID-19;
  • A child or other person in the household for which the individual has primary caregiving responsibility is unable to attend school or another facility that is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency and such school or facility care is required for the individual to work;
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because of a quarantine imposed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency;
  • The individual is unable to reach the place of employment because the individual has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
  • The individual was scheduled to commence employment and does not have a job as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency;
  • The individual has become the breadwinner or major support for a household has died as a direct result of COVID-19;
  • The individual has to quit his or her job as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency;
  • The individual’s place of employment is closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

If the individual meets the above criterion, she is a “covered individual” and is eligible for unemployment assistance authorized by the PUA provisions of the CARES Act. Such assistance was available beginning January 27, 2020 and provides for up to thirty-nine (39) weeks of unemployment benefits extending through December 31, 2020. Covered individuals’ unemployment benefits are calculated state-by-state, according to each state’s conventional unemployment compensation system. In addition, under the PUA provisions of the CARES Act, covered individuals may receive an additional $600 for each week of unemployment until July 31, 2020.

What Businesses Can Do to Protect Themselves

To counteract the risks discussed above, I recommend a business implement the following best practices when responding to a claim of unemployment by an independent contractor:

  • respond proactively to unemployment claim notices for independent contractors;
  • state clearly in the response that the relevant individual-claimants were independent contractors and not employees of the business;
  • affirmatively state that each independent contractor claimant was an independent contractor to whom the business occasionally (or routinely) provided work, but that it is unable to provide the same volume (or any) work to the individual at present because of the COVID-19 national emergency;
  • specify in the response that the individual’s eligibility for unemployment benefits must be entirely predicated on the PUA provisions of the CARES Act allowing for independent contractor participation in the program; and
  • provide the claimant’s independent contractor agreement to the state unemployment agency.

In providing this information and documentation to the state unemployment agency, the business will be able to demonstrate its independent contractor relationship with the individual. Together with the fact that these individuals’ eligibility to receive unemployment income rests exclusively on relevant CARES Act provisions, the business should be well-positioned to avoid the typical risks that can result from a successful unemployment claim by an independent contractor.

Martin J. Lopez III is an attorney at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.

SBA disaster loan summary

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on April 2, 2020.

This Gavel to Gavel column is a summary of our full-length Q&A on Small Business Administration (SBA) loan programs.


By Phillips Murrah Director Alison J. Cross and Attorney Kara K. Laster

Phillips Murrah Attorney Kara K. Laster and Director Alison J. Cross

On March 27, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which expanded two Small Business Administration loan programs – the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program.

Small business owners, in particular, are anxious to receive relief under the historic act. Below is a summary of highlights of these two expanded lending programs:

• PPP loans: Eligible businesses may use PPP loans for payroll costs, health care, interest on mortgage payments, rent, utilities, and interest on any other debt. Eligibility requires that applicants had no more than 500 employees per physical location, were operational prior to Feb. 15, had employees on payroll, and paid wages and payroll taxes. They may receive the lesser of 2.5 times the average monthly payroll costs during the prior year or $10 million.

The dates to begin applying are small businesses and sole proprietorships on April 3 and independent contractors and self-employed individuals on April 10. The application deadline is June 30, but businesses should apply as soon as possible because there is a funding cap.

Businesses need to submit a PPP loan application along with payroll documentation to an approved lender. Businesses must certify that they suffered substantial economic injury from COVID-19 and that funds will be used to retain workers and maintain payroll, or make mortgage payments, lease payments, and utility payments.

• EIDL loans: Eligible businesses may use EIDL loans for working capital and they can be up to $2 million with interest rates of 3.75% for small businesses and 2.75% for nonprofits. Loan amounts are based on actual economic injury. Eligibility requires that applicants had no more than 500 employees in existence as of Jan. 31 and that they suffered substantial economic injury from COVID-19.

Additionally, if the loan is made before Dec. 31 and is $200,000 or less, there is no guarantee requirement. Applications should be submitted directly to the SBA, which can be found on its website.

There are numerous additional stipulations and details related to these two small business disaster loans that cannot fit onto this column format, including loan forgiveness criteria, amount determination and approved lenders. Applicants should consider discussing their application with legal representation.

Phillips Murrah attorneys Kara K. Laster and Alison J. Cross contributed to this column.

Banks may be liable for negligent transfer of hacked accounts

This column was originally published in The Journal Record on March 9, 2020.


Justin G. Bates is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters.

By Justin G. Bates, Phillips Murrah Attorney

When asked by a reporter why he robs banks, notorious criminal “Slick Willie” Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” While banks still have the money, the nature of the crime has evolved with technology. Today’s modern bank robber is often armed with nothing more than a mouse and keyboard, and the preferred tools and techniques of their trade are phishing and malware.

Hackers infiltrate businesses and individuals alike, typically using “social engineering” tactics to gain trust and access to an employee’s email account, to cite a common example, and re-route money from the rightful owner’s bank account to their own. While there are stiff penalties for a criminal caught in the act, it may come as a surprise that a bank that authorizes a wire transfer to a hacker’s account could be liable to the rightful owner.

Article 4A of the Uniform Commercial Code was enacted in response to the growth of electronic funds transfers and the crime that evolved in its wake. Under Article 4A, a bank is liable to a customer for the full amount of a negligently processed wire received by a hacker, including interest.

In the most basic terms, a bank is liable to its customer for a negligent wire transfer when (1) the customer did not authorize the transfer and (2) the transfer cannot be enforced against the customer because either (a) the transfer was not authorized by an employee of the customer or (b) a third party (outside hacker) initiated the transfer. At first glance, this may seem to be a slam-dunk trigger for liability to an aggrieved customer. But banks can take proper steps to insulate themselves from any liability under Article 4A.

To avoid liability, the bank must first prove three things: First, that it and the customer had an “agreed security procedure,” which are steps put in place, to which both the bank and customer agree by contract, to verify that a payment order or communication is between the bank and the customer. This is most commonly accomplished in the customer and bank’s initial account agreement.

Second, the bank must prove that it complied with the agreed security procedure and that such procedure is “commercially reasonable.” In other words, the procedures are to be in line with that which someone familiar with the industry would regard as sufficient and realistic. Examples of what constitutes “commercially reasonable” are explored below.

Finally, the bank must prove that it not only followed the security procedure, but that it initiated the wire transfer in “good faith.” In other words, the bank must prove that it acted with honesty in fact and observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.

So how does a bank best avoid liability?

In practice, cases under Article 4A often hinge on whether the bank’s security procedure is commercially reasonable. In order to meet this threshold, a bank is expected to have better than single-factor identification. The wire transfer should require the customer to input at least two of the following: (1) something the customer knows, such as a password; (2) something the customer has, such as an IP address; or (3) something the customer is, such as a fingerprint or voice scan.

With cybercrime on the rise, it is crucial for any bank to both protect its customers and insulate itself from potential liability. Requiring multi-factor identification is no guarantee for a bank to avoid liability under Section 4A, but it is one relatively easy way for a bank to better protect itself and its customers.

Justin G. Bates is a civil litigation attorney at the law firm of Phillips Murrah in Oklahoma City.

Gardner named to Journal Record’s 2020 Achievers Under 40

Melissa Gardner is a Director who practices in the Energy & Natural Resources Practice Group. She represents both privately-owned and public companies in a wide variety of oil and gas matters, with a strong emphasis on oil and gas title examination.

The Journal Record will honor Melissa Gardner, Phillips Murrah Director and Shareholder, and 44 others as part of its 17th class of Achievers Under 40.

The 45 honorees will be recognized at the Achievers Under 40 event on May 29 at the Embassy Suites Oklahoma City Downtown/Medical Center at 741 N. Phillips Ave.

“Young leaders in Oklahoma set the pace of progress in our state,” said Russell Ray, editor of The Journal Record. “Choosing the 45 honorees was difficult. Many of these honorees will undoubtedly be the chief architects of change in our state.”

The Journal Record’s 2020 Achievers Under 40 are:

  • Maurianna Adams, Progress OKC.
  • Cinthya Allen, University of Oklahoma.
  • Rob Allen, Sage Sotheby’s International Realty.
  • Laura Aufleger, OnCue.
  • Katy Battiest, One Gas Inc.
  • Merleyn Bell, Oklahoma House of Representatives.
  • Hailey Benton-Thomas, TBS Factoring Service LLC.
  • Carrie Blumert, Oklahoma County.
  • Mickey Dollens, Oklahoma House of Representatives and Energy Assist Foundation.
  • Andrea Durbin, MA+Architecture.
  • Lori Elms, The First State Bank.
  • Ryan Forsythe, Verizon.
  • Kelley Gann, Freestyle Creative.
  • Melissa Gardner, Phillips Murrah.
  • Aundria Goree, Oklahoma City-County Health Department.
  • Jonathan Gray, Enel North America.
  • Rachael Gruntmeir, The Black Scintilla.
  • Jordan Haygood, SSM Health – Oklahoma.
  • Alison Heasley, ADG P.C.
  • Carri Hicks, State of Oklahoma.
  • Marcus High, Mercy Hospital Ardmore.
  • Jonathan Hillman, BKD CPAs & Advisors.
  • Alex Kaiser, Simmons Bank.
  • Stephanie Keller, Eide Bailly.
  • Jake Krattiger, GableGotwals.
  • Jennifer Lepard, State Chamber Research Foundation.
  • Lisa McLarty, Mabrey Bank.
  • Autumn McMahon, Oklahoma Electric Cooperative.
  • Mark McMullen, Tulsa Community College.
  • Nikki Nice, City of Oklahoma City.
  • Travis Noland, Cherokee Nation.
  • Matthew Peacock, Peacock Design.
  • Melissa Phillips, AT&T.
  • Jonas Rabel, Integris Grove & Miami Hospital.
  • Brent Rempe, Allegiance Credit Union.
  • Diana Reynolds, Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores.
  • Melanie Rughani, Crowe & Dunlevy.
  • Becky Samples, Oklahoma Farm Bureau Insurance.
  • James Sanchez, Regent Bank.
  • Trista Shomo, Manhattan Construction Co.
  • Brady Sidwell, Enid Brewing Co.
  • Clay Taylor, Oklahoma Lobby Group.
  • Vincent Venincasa, Edmond Regional Eye Associates.
  • Cornell Wesley, Fiscal Fundamentals Inc.
  • Jonna Whetsel, Network for Pets of Domestic Violence Victims.

Read more about the Achievers Under 40 event here.
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Court to interpret provisions of gaming compact

This column was originally published in The Journal Record on January 20, 2020.


Attorney Ashley Schovanec Web

Ashley M. Schovanec is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters.

By Phillips Murrah Attorney Ashley M. Schovanec

On Dec. 31, the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations filed suit against the governor, asking a federal judge to determine whether Oklahoma tribes have the right to continue gaming activities under the tribal-state gaming compact offered by the state of Oklahoma to the tribes in 2004.

What is the tribal-state gaming compact?

In 1988, Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to create a framework for states and Indian tribes to cooperate in regulating on-reservation tribal gaming. The IGRA provides a tribal-state compact as the mechanism for facilitating the unusual relationship in which a tribe might affirmatively seek the extension of state jurisdiction and the application of state laws to activities conducted on Indian land. The tribal-state compact provides the state with the only lawful means for directly asserting any governmental interests related to tribal gaming activities.

Absent a negotiated compact between the tribes and the state, Class III gaming (casino games, slot machines and horse racing) is forbidden by the IGRA. While tribes are incentivized to negotiate compacts to gain permission to conduct Class III gaming, the state is incentivized to negotiate compacts to gain a share of the gaming revenue.

In 2004, Oklahoma and the tribes entered into a compact that would allow the tribes to conduct Class III gaming activity on Indian lands in exchange for the tribes’ disbursement of periodic revenue-share payments to the State. Part 15.A. of the compact sets forth the requirements that must be met for the compact to go into effect. Part 15.B. provides that the compact’s initial term will expire on Jan. 1, 2020, and “shall automatically renew” for successive 15-year terms on that same date, if at that time “organizational licensees” (e.g. horse race tracks and others) are authorized to conduct certain electronic gaming pursuant to any governmental action of the state or court order following the effective date of the compact. Part 15.C. states that the compact will remain in effect until either its term expires without renewal or it is terminated by mutual consent of the parties.

What is the central issue of the dispute?

The tribes are seeking a declaratory judgment on the single question of whether the compact was renewed on Jan. 1 for another 15-year term. The tribes argue the state has taken actions that satisfy Part 15.B.’s conditions for automatic renewal – through the actions of the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission’s issuance of licenses for electronic gaming and the state’s enactment of changes in state-regulated electronic gaming. On the opposite side, Gov. Stitt believes that the requirements that allow for automatic renewal have not been met. Since the summer of 2019, Stitt has maintained the compact would expire Dec. 31, 2019, and gambling at tribal casinos would become illegal as of Jan. 1, 2020.

Why is this a high-stakes lawsuit?

The dispute between the state and the tribes is significant. In Fiscal 2018, 31 tribes operated 131 facilities offering Class III games and collected $2.3 billion in revenue, with approximately $139 million paid to the state. If Chief Federal Judge Timothy DeGiusti determines the compact was not renewed, the future of Class III gaming is unclear. While the tribes would absorb the brunt of a non-renewal declaration, those that conduct business with the tribes and gaming facility patrons would likely see substantial changes to the gaming landscape they once knew – whether it be an elimination of Class III gaming in Oklahoma or an alteration of the terms of the 2004 compact. Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the court’s declaration will likely have a lasting effect upon the tribal-state relationship.

Ashley M. Schovanec is an attorney at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.

Mindfulness in the legal profession

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on January 9, 2020.


Kendra Norman Web

Kendra M. Norman represents individuals and businesses in a broad range of transactional matters.

By Phillips Murrah Attorney Kendra M. Norman

Every morning, my Apple Watch vibrates on my wrist and tells me to start the Breathe app. My instinct is to ignore it, feeling like taking a few moments to just breathe is a waste of precious time that could be spent more productively – such as on contributing to my billable-hour requirement.

Despite this instinct, spending time on our mental health is far from wasted time. The legal industry is fact-focused, but when it comes to our own well-being, we’re very good at ignoring facts. We zealously represent our clients, but we often don’t advocate on our own behalf.

Generally, attorneys are driven pessimists and perfectionists in a difficult profession that puts us almost always on-call. We tend to romanticize stress and brag about how late we stay at the office and how often we work on weekends. Too often, we sacrifice our well-being as we scramble to meet unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others.

A recent American Bar Association/Hazelden Betty Ford study concluded that licensed, employed attorneys have alcohol issues and problems with anxiety and depression at a rate high above most other professions. There has also been a historical stigma in legal culture that discourages help-seeking behaviors, which tends to exacerbate feelings of isolation and increase emotional suffering.

The good news is that there is a recent-but-slow shift in attorney culture toward a greater focus on mental health and self-care, including mindfulness. In late 2018, the ABA launched a campaign to improve mental health, and over 90 law firms and corporate law departments agreed to follow a framework to improve our industry in this regard. Some law firms have even hired staff specifically devoted to addressing their employees’ mental health.

I’ve been trying to actively meditate for about a year now, and I don’t always find time to fit it in. However, if I’ve had a particularly challenging day or can’t get work off my mind, I reach for the meditation app on my phone to bring myself some peace of mind. Meditation helps me live in the present rather than ruminating about the past or the future.

In a profession that is mentally and emotionally challenging, healthy coping mechanisms like meditation, yoga, exercise, and even journaling can make a great difference. Remember – it’s not wasted time to take a few moments, close your eyes and just breathe.

Kendra M. Norman is an attorney at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.

Medicaid, work and community engagement

This column was originally published in The Journal Record on November 27, 2019.


Introducing Becky-Pasternik-Ikard

Rebecca “Becky” Pasternik-Ikard is a lawyer, a nurse and a Medicaid program director who brings decades of experience to assist Phillips Murrah healthcare clients in copy with reimbursement, including negotiating payments, audits and appeals, and other regulatory issues related to governmental payments of providers.

By Phillips Murrah Of Counsel Attorney Becky Pasternik-Ikard

Physicians, hospitals and other health care providers continue to experience not only shrinking reimbursement rates, but also an increasingly formidable regulatory presence. A recent controversial Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services policy reform permits states to require certain Medicaid beneficiaries to engage in meaningful work or in volunteer activities as a condition for continued eligibility.

This policy is a fundamental shift in Medicaid eligibility, eliciting criticism from the health care community that employment should not be a condition for coverage and access to medical treatment.

Although overall Medicaid enrollment has declined over the past two years, Medicaid enrollment has increased since the Affordable Care Act, driven primarily by newly eligible adults gaining coverage under Medicaid expansion, with the highest enrollment increases seen in Medicaid expansion states. This increase includes not only the Medicaid expansion population, but also those individuals who were currently eligible, but not enrolled. These people learned of coverage due to extensive outreach efforts by expansion states.

In its Jan. 11, 2018 State Medicaid Director letter entitled Opportunities to Promote Work and Community Engagement among Medicaid Beneficiaries, CMS announced the new policy and clarified that states could predicate continued Medicaid eligibility on participation in work requirements, including community service, caregiving, education, job training, and substance use disorder treatment. The basis for this policy is Section 1901 of the Social Security Act. Divisive reactions have opponents characterizing it as inconsistent with Medicaid’s objective of health coverage and an impermissible Medicaid enrollment reduction strategy.

Eighteen states have sought approval to implement work requirements. Although CMS has approved all requests submitted by Medicaid expansion states, the implementation of three, Arkansas, Kentucky and New Hampshire, has been interrupted or stopped due to legal challenge.

Kentucky, a Medicaid expansion state, received CMS approval the day after the new policy was announced. Kentucky had submitted a Section 1115 waiver authority request in 2017 incorporating work requirements. Shortly after Kentucky’s January 2018 approval, a legal challenge was filed. Kentucky’s implementation has been blocked twice by a federal district court judge and is under appeal. Kentucky Gov.-elect Andy Beshear has declared plans to rescind Medicaid work requirements.

In July 2017, Indiana submitted its request to CMS proposing work requirements for its Medicaid expansion enrollees. Although Indiana received CMS approval in February 2018, implementation did not begin until January 2019. In September 2019, a lawsuit was filed challenging Indiana’s program. Indiana has suspended its work requirements pending the outcome of the litigation.

In March 2018, CMS approved Arkansas’ June 2017 request to amend its Section 1115 waiver to implement work requirements. Implementation began in June 2018. In August 2018, a lawsuit was filed challenging Arkansas’ approval. A year after approval, the federal district court set it aside. The matter is under appeal.

In May 2018, New Hampshire became the fourth state to win approval for work requirements, with implementation scheduled in March, but it was postponed due to a lawsuit filed the same month. Consistent with the rulings for Kentucky and Arkansas, in July 2019, the same federal district court judge set aside the approval for New Hampshire.

State leadership and Medicaid programs nationwide await the outcome following the Oct. 11 oral arguments related to the appeals for Arkansas and Kentucky. Oklahoma, a non-expansion state, has a pending waiver request to impose work requirements on certain Medicaid beneficiaries. If approved, this would add barriers to access and continuity of care, which are likely to place additional administrative and financial burdens on hospitals, physicians and other health care providers.

Becky Pasternik-Ikard is the former CEO of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and former state Medicaid director. She currently practices Of Counsel for Phillips Murrah law firm in Oklahoma City.

The ABCs of the FLSA’s new overtime rules

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on November 21, 2019.


attorney Martin J Lopez III

Martin J. Lopez III is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters.

By Phillips Murrah Attorney Martin J. Lopez III

The Fair Labor Standards Act is the federal law regulating employee pay. Among other things, the FLSA covers minimum wages, maximum hours, overtime compensation and child labor.

The current federal minimum wage for most employees is $7.25 per hour. The FLSA requires employers to pay overtime, one-and-a-half times an employee’s regular hourly rate, when employees work more than 40 hours in a workweek. The FLSA also establishes categories of employees who are exempt from its overtime pay requirements, one of which is known as the white collar exemption. This includes executives, administrative employees, educational establishments, professional employees, computer employees and highly compensated employees.

Currently, exempt employees must be paid a salary of at least $455 per week. Being paid on a salary basis means that an employee must receive a full salary for any week in which work is performed, and they are not eligible for overtime. An exempt employee’s salary may not be reduced due to absences from work except in specific limited situations.

On Sept. 24, the U.S. Department of Labor announced its final rules for the revisions to the overtime regulations for the white collar exemptions. This change, effective Jan. 1, prospectively makes roughly 1.3 million American workers newly eligible for overtime pay. The rule updates the earnings thresholds necessary to exempt employees from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements and allows employers to count a portion of certain bonuses and commissions toward meeting the salary level. These thresholds were last updated in 2004.

In the final rule, the Department of Labor is:

• Raising the standard salary level from the currently enforced weekly level of $455 to $684 (equivalent to $35,568 per year for a full-year worker).

• Raising the total annual compensation requirement for highly compensated employees from the currently enforced annual level of $100,000 to $107,432.

• Allowing employers to use nondiscretionary bonuses and incentive payments (including commissions) paid at least annually to satisfy up to 10% of the standard salary level, in recognition of evolving pay practices.

• Revising the special salary levels for workers in U.S. territories and the motion picture industry.

In light of this, employers should review their employee records for any of its exempt workers making less than the new salary threshold level and determine what changes should be made.

Martin J. Lopez III is an attorney at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.

State Lawmaker considers damages caps on civil lawsuits

Ashley M. Schovanec, Phillips Murrah Litigation Attorney, was quoted in a Journal Record article by Steve Metzer regarding the decision by Chris Kannady, chairman of the Oklahoma House Judiciary Committee, to consider a legislative compromise to a ruling that made caps on certain damages in civil lawsuits unconstitutional.

Attorney Ashley Schovanec Web

Ashley M. Schovanec is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters.

Read Schovanec’s comments below:

Ashley M. Schovanec, a litigation attorney with the firm of Phillips Murrah, said another result of the Supreme Court’s decision might be that businesses will be more likely to settle lawsuits than contest them on legal grounds,

Because the risk of large verdicts just went up, cases may settle earlier because of the uncertainty associated with leaving a damages calculation up to a jury,” she said.

Read the full article from the Journal Record.

Phillips Murrah Director addresses banking issues with medical marijuana industry

A Journal Record article published on August 30, 2019 features Phillips Murrah Director Jason M. Kreth’s participation on a recent panel discussing issues facing the banking industry with regards to the introduction of the medical marijuana industry in the market.


From left: Journal Record Editor Russell Ray, Phillips Murrah Director Jason Kreth, CRF Accounting Solutions owner Christina Ferguson and First Fidelity Senior Vice President Charles Griffin discuss challenges faced by medical marijuana businesses seeking to obtain basic banking services.

Imagine running a business, or even your personal life without a bank.

What would it be like to navigate the modern world without a checkbook, a bank card and a credit card? How would you pay bills, pay taxes, order products and supplies or even buy a plane ticket?

That’s not a problem most people face, but many businesses associated with Oklahoma’s fastest-growing industry have found themselves locked out.

The state’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry has generated tens of millions of dollars in local and state tax revenues since Oklahomans voted to legalize the industry last summer. But the federal government still considers marijuana a banned substance, which creates significant legal liabilities for banks, which have largely turned their backs on medical marijuana businesses.

While the rest of the state enjoys split-second financial transactions at the touch of button or the swipe of a smartphone, most businesses associated with medical marijuana operate on a cash basis, storing money in lockboxes, safes, bank bags and even shoe boxes. The most basic convenience of opening a bank account is off limits to them.

An attorney, banker and accountant came together Thursday to share their experiences with the medical marijuana industry. The discussion was part of an ongoing series of roundtables sponsored by The Journal Record and broadcast by KOSU radio.

The professionals work with clients within the legal marijuana industry and they shared their unique views and answered questions from a studio audience largely composed of people with medical marijuana businesses.

“Without a bank account, we’re dealing with cash, which is very difficult to track. It’s like having $100 in your purse, and you wonder where it all went a couple days later,” said Christina Ferguson, owner of CRF Accounting Solutions, which serves several clients in Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry.

Ferguson said her clients keep cash logs, which require meticulous record keeping after each transfer and transaction. Some disburse cash among as many as four safes as well as bank bags that function as bank accounts.

“Where a bank account is taking out human error, a cash log is allowing human error to come back in, and people make mistakes, but that’s the best we we’ve found so far,” she said. “It is very time-consuming, and you must stay on top of it.”

While Oklahoma has a few financial institutions exploring the possibility of offering services to medical marijuana businesses, First Fidelity Bank may be the first in the state to welcome the industry, but even at that, its relationship with marijuana businesses is at arm’s distance.

The bank’s first experience with the marijuana industry came five years ago when Arizona legalized it, said Charles Griffin, director of retail banking for First Fidelity Bank in Oklahoma and Arizona.

In Arizona and in Oklahoma, serving marijuana businesses is the right thing to do, Griffin said.

“It’s very important to serve the community, and these are legitimate businesses with legitimate needs. They need to be able to do the same things that everyone else does.”

These businesses make a lot of money and providing banking services allows them to deposit their money into the Federal Reserve, where it should be and where it will not be vulnerable to crime and pose a danger to the businesses and their employees, Griffin said.

But Griffin said the banking industry takes on significant risk and liability by working with marijuana, and First Fidelity is painstaking in its approach to monitoring businesses through rigorous documentation requirements and background checks.

It is a labor-intensive service that requires significant staffing to look out for money laundering operations and bad actors, he said.

First Fidelity requires marijuana retailers, growers, labs and other businesses that directly handle marijuana to pay fees as high as $1,000 per month to maintain accounts. The bank also requires significant fees from other companies that don’t handle marijuana directly, but serve the industry, such as equipment suppliers, accounting firms and other vendors.

Because of federal laws against marijuana and the banking industry’s exposure to heavy federal regulation, there is significant risk involved in serving the medical marijuana industry, Griffin said.

“I equate opening a new account for a medical marijuana business to underwriting a commercial loan,” he said.

That doesn’t stop the bank from bringing in more clients, however. Griffin said First Fidelity has about 60 medical marijuana clients, and he expects that number to grow higher through the coming months.

Panelists are optimistic there is relief in the future, but there is no certainty when that might come.

The SAFE Banking Act is pending in Congress, and if it were to become law, it would prevent federal regulators from taking adverse action against banks, said attorney Jason Kreth of the law firm Phillips Murrah.

It appears the bill has enough votes to pass the U.S. House of Representatives, but there’s doubt it would pass the Republican controlled Senate and be signed by President Trump, Kreth said.

“It’s inevitable that some piece of legislation down the road will accomplish what the SAFE Banking Act is trying to do,” Kreth said. “There’s a sea change in public opinion in regard to the use of legal cannabis, so I think we will get something that clarifies these laws.”

“If I had to put odds on it, I would say it’s doubtful it would pass the Senate, but, at some point in the future, I expect something like this will pass.”

Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s medical marijuana businesses are searching a scarce landscape for the financial services they need to manage growing revenue streams.

“I have money in a shoebox in my closet,” said Peter Fulmer, owner of FulMed Labs.

Fulmer, who attended Thursday’s roundtable, said his business is likely to get much busier now that the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana and Patient Protection Act is now in effect. Among other things, the act requires all marijuana to be tested and graded for content by a certified lab before it can be sold to the public.

Fulmer said his lab will see more activity this fall, and he’s been looking for banking services to help manage the surge in cash flow.

“I’ve gone to 15 banks, and I’ve been turned down by all but one,” he said. “The one bank is charging $1,250 per month and they want 0.7% of every transaction.”

He said he’s still looking, and he’s open to ideas as he waited in line after the meeting to speak with Griffin about opening an account at First Fidelity.

“There’s a lot of variability in what everybody is doing,” he said. “It’s all over the board.”

Are partners employees? What the IRS says about taxing partnerships

On June 28, the Internal Revenue Service finalized Treasury regulations relating to the tax treatment of partners (T.D. 9869).

Jessica Cory web

Jessica N. Cory represents businesses and individuals in a wide range of transactional matters, with an emphasis on tax planning.

These regulations confirm that owners of an entity treated as a partnership for federal income tax purposes, including limited liability companies, cannot be treated as employees for purposes of employment taxes and income tax withholding. Instead, an owner is treated as “self-employed” to the extent he or she receives compensation for services rendered to the partnership. This has important tax consequences for both the owner and the partnership.

For example, because an owner is not an employee, the partnership will not withhold taxes from his or her check or share the responsibility of paying any employment tax. Instead, an owner will be responsible for making estimated income tax payments and paying 15.3% self-employment tax on his or her compensation. Owners must also treat any partnership-paid health insurance premiums as income and are barred from participating in the partnership’s cafeteria plan, unlike the partnership’s employees. In addition, the partnership must report any owner compensation on Schedule K-1 versus the more traditional Form W-2.

Because many owners prefer to be treated as employees, especially current employees awarded an ownership interest in the company as compensation, partnerships have attempted to develop a work-around to these rules. One popular structure involved the formation of a wholly owned subsidiary to employ the partnership’s owners. In this scenario, the subsidiary would be disregarded for federal income tax purposes, allowing the partnership to continue filing a single Form 1065, U.S. Return of Partnership Income, but respected for employment taxes, enabling the partnership to treat its owners as W-2 employees rather than self-employed. The recently finalized Treasury regulations shut down this structure by clarifying that a disregarded entity cannot be used to convert an owner of a partnership into an employee.

Now that the IRS has finalized rules prohibiting this structure, it is important for tax partnerships, including many limited liability companies, to reevaluate how they are treating their owners for federal income tax purposes. To the extent a partnership has owners that would prefer to be treated as employees, or plans to offer an equity interest in the partnership to key employees as an incentive, the business should reach out to an experienced tax attorney to discuss potential structuring alternatives.


By Phillips Murrah Attorney Jessica N. Cory

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on August 29, 2019.

Jessica N. Cory is an attorney at Phillips Murrah who represents businesses and individuals in a wide range of transactional matters with an emphasis on tax planning.

How to determine whether to hold or terminate an oil and gas lease

When a landowner leases property to an energy company, the lease agreement typically contains a held-by-production provision, also known as a habendum clause. In Oklahoma, habendum clauses in oil and gas leases establish that after the primary lease term has ended, the lease shall remain in force as long as the land is capable of producing a minimum amount of oil or gas. But how do courts decide whether to hold or end such a lease?

Habendum clauses typically describe the lease term as, “from the date hereof and as long thereafter as oil or gas … is produced from said land.” When the term “produced” is used in a “thereafter” provision of the habendum clause, it has been determined by courts to mean production in “paying quantities.”

However, “paying quantities” is not determined by a specific dollar amount. Rather, it is defined as an amount of production sufficient to yield a profit to the lessee beyond lifting expenses, which include costs of operating the pumps, gross production taxes and electricity.

To determine whether a lease is commercially producing and, therefore, may be held by production, there are four factors that courts take into account: the accounting period, revenue during that period, expenses during that period, and equitable considerations.

The accounting period chosen for any production analysis varies and is determined by examining facts and circumstances specific to the lease. Accounting periods can make or break a case when trying to ascertain whether there was production in paying quantities. Thus, to reflect the production status, it is crucial to determine a sufficient amount of time that would provide information that would allow a “reasonable and prudent operator” to decide whether to continue or cease operation.

For example, in Hoyt v. Continental Oil Co., the accounting period was 14 months. In Smith v. Marshall Oil Corp., the accounting period was 35 months.

Once an accounting period is established, all revenue generated by the lease during that period is considered. Next, lifting expenses are considered and compared against revenue to see which is greater. However, this consideration does not include overriding royalties, overhead, and depreciation.

Lastly, if the lease is unprofitable, the court will examine any equitable considerations to determine if any justify maintaining the lease. These considerations are very specific to the circumstances of the lease that may affect profitability, which could include market conditions, changes in public policy, pipeline access, and conflict resolution activity.

If, after examining all factors, it is determined that the oil and gas lease is returning a profit over lifting expenses, the lease will not be vulnerable to termination and shall be allowed to continue beyond the primary lease term.

Originally published in The Journal Record on July 5, 2019.

Journal Record awards Phillips Murrah law firm top Reader Rankings honors

PM Reader Rankings attendees 2019

Phillips Murrah attorneys and executive leaders attend The Journal Record’s Reader Rankings Gala where the Firm won in five categories.

Phillips Murrah is proud to announce our Firm received top honors in five of The Journal Record’s Reader Rankings categories.

“It’s an honor to be recognized in our community for the challenging work our attorneys do every day,” Marketing Director Dave Rhea said.

Phillips Murrah received awards for Best Civil Litigation Firm, Best Family Law Firm, Best Intellectual Property Firm, Best Malpractice Firm and Best Overall Leadership at Reader Rankings Gala on June 20.

“We take pride in providing exceptional legal services while striving to provide a positive, balanced atmosphere for our attorneys and staff,” said Thomas G. Wolfe, Phillips Murrah President and Managing Partner.

The Reader Rankings program recognizes and celebrates the achievements of Oklahoma businesses and entrepreneurs.

Journal Record readers nominate and vote for the best businesses and organizations across a wide variety of categories encompassing the areas of construction and design, entertainment, finance/accounting, general business, health care, higher education, hospitality, legal services, real estate and information technology.

To learn more about the workplace culture and opportunities at Phillips Murrah, visit our Careers pagehttps://phillipsmurrah.com/careers.

Who should define the terms of an oil and gas lease?

Whose job is it to determine which expenses can be deducted from royalty payments under the terms of an oil and gas lease? Is it the lessee or the operator? People argue both positions and all parties desire clarity in who bears this burden.

Molly Tipton

Molly Tipton is an attorney in the Energy & Natural Resources Practice Group. She represents both privately-owned and public companies in a wide variety of oil and gas matters, with a strong emphasis on oil and gas title examination.

Unfortunately, there are many interpretations of the differing forms of deductions language in leases, and the courts have not had the opportunity to make a decision. Many operators have recently requested input from the lessee on royalty valuation, but some lessees may balk at this idea because current practice typically provides that the operator cuts the checks.

Pursuant to 52 O.S. § 570.8(A), a working interest owner in a gas well shall furnish to the operator the name, address, royalty interest, taxpayer identification number, and payment status of royalty interest owners for whom they hold a lease. While this language does not place the burden on the working interest owner to tell the operator how royalty proceeds should be valued under the terms of the lease, it is understandable that an operator wishes for input from the lessee, as they are a party to the lease.

However, when an operator asks a lessee to determine how royalty proceeds should be valued under the terms of the lease, the lessee may fear liability to the royalty interest owner in the event that the operator is paying the royalty contrary to how the lessor interprets the terms of the lease.

The lessee should take comfort in the language in 52 O.S. § 570.9(D), which states that any working interest owner that pays or causes to be paid royalty proceeds for gas production in accordance with the Production Revenue Standards Act valued according to the terms of such working interest owner’s lease shall be relieved of all liability to the royalty interest owners for any further payment of proceeds from such production.

The valuation of royalties will affect both the royalty owner and the lessee, and without any guidance from the courts, there is no definitive answer as to who should define the exact terms of the lease. One can understand why neither the operator, nor the lessee, wants the burden of defining the lease terms, as they affect royalty deductions. Only time will tell whose job it is after all.

 


By Phillips Murrah Attorney Molly E. Tipton

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on May 30, 2019.

Gender equality and the rise of women in the boardroom

It should come as no shock that, although women make up just over half of the U.S. population, they are underrepresented in corporate executive management, as well as in the boardrooms of public companies in the U.S. This is often due to stereotypes that characterize female leaders as abrasive, aggressive and emotional. This disparate societal perception rewards certain characteristics in men while condemning them in women, which damages women striving for leadership roles.

Kendra Norman Web

Kendra M. Norman represents individuals and businesses in a broad range of transactional matters.

A 2016 Catalyst report found that in the U.S., women made up only 21.2% of the S&P 500 board seats.

A recent push for diversity on corporate boards of directors may change the gender lines of corporate culture. For example, California is the first state to statutorily require female representation on boards of directors.

In 2018, roughly 25% of California-based companies had no female directors on their board. In October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law requiring all public companies having principal executive offices in the state to have at least one woman on the board by the end of 2019. By the end of 2021, any California public company with five directors must have a minimum of two female directors, and those with six or more directors must include at least three women. The law imposes a $100,000 fine for a first-time violation and a $300,000 fine for subsequent violations.

California follows several European countries, including Germany, France, Norway, and Sweden, which have implemented quotas and fines to increase female representation in the boardroom. Additionally, shareholder advisory firms such as Institutional Shareholder Services and Glass, Lewis & Co. are now using gender diversity as a factor for shareholder vote recommendations.

While a government-mandated requirement may not be the ultimate solution, it could accelerate the achievement of gender equality.

Such a change in gender representation is likely to benefit companies, as gender and culture diversity results in diverse perspectives, which is likely to improve a company’s performance. It will also create less gender discrimination in recruitment, promotion, and retention.

While Oklahoma continuously ranks in the bottom of states for women when it comes to the income gap, workplace environment, education, and health, Oklahoma ranks 20th with respect to the executive positions gap, according to a recent 2018 WalletHub study. While there is much room for improvement, there may be hope for Oklahoma in achieving executive gender equality.


By Phillips Murrah Attorney Kendra M. Norman

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

A bitter pill – avoiding medical malpractice lawsuits for new physicians

While becoming a resident physician is undoubtedly an exciting next step in the process, it inherently comes with daunting new realities – a plethora of health care regulatory compliance issues, constantly developing reimbursement requirements, and medical malpractice liability. This short article focuses on minimizing the risk of negligence-based medical malpractice lawsuits.

attorney Martin J Lopez III

Martin J. Lopez III is a litigation attorney who represents individuals and both privately-held and public companies in a wide range of civil litigation matters.

Medical school residency match day. It’s a chaotic, stressful revelation at which fourth-year medical students find out where they will spend the next few years of their lives as residents – newly minted physicians becoming experts in their respective fields.

While no practicing physician is immune from being sued, common-sense measures have proven effective in avoiding malpractice claims. And, although a resident physician’s liability is generally covered by the residency program, there remains ample reason to mitigate liability risk – notably, to avoid the stress, time, and hassle that comes with litigation.

Most obviously, physicians should provide the best medical care to their patients they possibly can. Lawsuits for medical malpractice involve determining whether the physician has met the standard of care owed to the patient; if she provided the best care she could have, she has positioned herself well from the outset.

Essential to providing a high level of care to the patient is communication about that care to the patient. Medical malpractice lawsuits often involve allegations of poor communication that may be rooted in a failure to convey respect, inadequate listening skills, and the use of technical medical jargon rather than patient-friendly language.

In a fast-paced environment with numerous patients to attend to, it’s understandably easy to use verbal medical shortcuts for efficiency’s sake; however, using patient-friendly language creates a stronger connection with patients, makes for well-informed patients, and may also manage patient expectations about treatment, diagnosis, and prognosis.

When a patient is dissatisfied, the physician should carefully listen and try to understand the basis for the concern or frustration and engage in meaningful dialogue about the issue. By making this concerted effort to proactively communicate and resolve issues, physicians affirm their commitments both to the patients and to a quality practice where people are treated with respect.

Another important aspect of mitigating liability risk is thorough detailed documentation in the medical record. Careful documentation is the foundation for quality and coordinated patient care, defending malpractice claims, and even for reimbursement issues by government programs – such as Medicare and Medicaid – and commercial insurers.

Proper documentation should include, but certainly isn’t limited to: details of discussions with patients, the physician’s thought and decision-making processes, results of laboratory tests and other ancillary services, proposed courses of treatment (including the impact of doing nothing), the bases for any physician recommendations, and communication of alternatives to the patient. In so carefully documenting, the physician establishes medical necessity for her services and creates admissible evidence in the event litigation arises out of the treatment.

While it may create extra work for physicians, taking the steps outlined in this article offers the benefits of more meaningful communication with patients, increases patient satisfaction, facilitates coordinated care with other providers on the patient’s behalf, and reduces the risk of medical malpractice lawsuit liability. Establishing these habits early in a medical career will undoubtedly offer great long-term rewards.

Martin J. Lopez III is a litigation attorney with the Oklahoma City law firm of Phillips Murrah.

Director Nikki Edwards quoted by Journal Record on divorce settlements

Nicholle Jones Edwards

Nicholle Jones Edwards’ practice focuses on family law, labor law and general civil litigation. Her family law practice includes litigation, complex custody issues and valuation issues.

A change in tax deductions regarding alimony has lead to an influx of clients looking to expedite their divorces.

Nikki Edwards, Phillips Murrah Director and Family Law Attorney, was quoted in a Journal Record article addressing the circumstances agreeing with Ron Little, McAfee & Taft Family Law Attorney.

Phillips Murrah Family Practice Law Director Nikki Edwards said she’s seeing the same issues from her clients as Little. She has clients who are trying to get the agreement finalized in a few weeks, while others are willing to push it into 2019.

“It was a surprising change because it’s been well-settled for many years,” she said. “The impact will be to restructure the settlement negotiations.”

She said from a practitioner’s standpoint, the change gets back to why alimony was created, which is predicated on one’s ability to pay versus one’s need.

“(The new law) will take out the thoughts of paying more because of the tax benefit,” she said. “It takes out the incentives for both sides.”

Read the full article by The Journal Record here.

Phillips Murrah’s legal team welcomes labor and employment attorney

Lauren Barghols Hanna

Lauren Barghols Hanna

Phillips Murrah law firm is proud to welcome Lauren Barghols Hanna to our downtown Oklahoma City office.

The Firm welcomed Lauren to the Firm’s Labor and Employment Practice Group as an Of Counsel attorney.

As a part of her employment practice, Lauren counsels and represents management in all phases of the employment relationship, including litigation matters involving discrimination, retaliation, harassment and wrongful discharge claims, whistleblower claims, claims related to employment agreements and theft of trade secrets, and other disputes arising from the workplace.

She also works with employers in crafting appropriate employment policies and procedures, employee handbooks, non-disclosure/non-solicitation agreements, and employee severance agreements and releases.

Lauren’s practice in the area of water rights frequently involves the representation of landowners in obtaining groundwater and streamwater permits for irrigation, oil and gas industry production, and other beneficial uses.

Lauren is a contributing author to the Oklahoma Employment Law Letter and has been interviewed by The Oklahoman, served as a guest legal columnist for The Journal Record business newspaper, and spoken at seminars on a variety of employment-related topics. She also authored the Oklahoma chapter of the LexisNexis Waters and Water Rights treatise.

Lauren’s achievements have earned her inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America (employment law—management; labor and employment litigation) and Oklahoma Super Lawyers.

In addition to her legal practice at the firm, she serves as a volunteer attorney for Oklahoma Lawyers for Children, a nonprofit organization that uses the time, talent, and resources of pro bono lawyers to represent and assist children in various matters, including parental termination jury trials before the Oklahoma County District Court (Juvenile Division).

In 2014, the Oklahoma CASA Association honored Lauren with its “Attorney of the Year” award for her work with OLFC. Lauren and her family also work with the Tinker Air Force Base Home Away From Home Program, welcoming Airmen serving their first tour into their family for holiday meals, birthday celebrations, summer cookouts, and other activities to create community and mentorship for young enlisted airmen.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Lauren lives in Edmond with her husband Adam and her two children. Her hobbies include rowing, camping, and OU sports.

Lawyers know everything – almost: Digital Marketing for Law Firms

What is brand affinity? What is SEO? Many law firms admittedly don’t know much digital marketing jargon. Historically speaking, marketing is a relatively new addition to the legal industry. Only 41 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized lawyers’ right to advertise.

Dave Rhea

Dave Rhea is the Marketing Director for Phillips Murrah law firm.

From what I understand – as a non-attorney working in a large law firm – law schools don’t offer many, if any, classes about digital marketing methods. Thus, these activities can seem as impractical to lawyers as dancing does to steelworkers.

However, in today’s digital landscape, it’s reasonable for attorneys to consider adopting a marketing mindset. Technology, coupled with the growing inclination of law firms to onboard marketing professionals, allows attorneys to easily demonstrate their expertise to a much wider audience while sacrificing fewer billable hours.

What can attorneys do to develop more business in the digital age? There are numerous ways to leverage new media to effectively enhance one’s visibility and reputation in the community, but for this column I would like to concentrate on one such activity, in particular.

The biggest bang for the non-billable hour is thought-leadership authorship. Writing short-form articles on a consistent basis for publication on the firm’s website, or blogging, is an easy way to position oneself as an industry leader. Such articles can have a long shelf life and are versatile in how they can be disseminated. This activity also allows for exposure outside of the law firm’s usual circles of influence while building a body of work that increases their digital marketing footprint, which allows the attorney-authors and their firms to be found more easily on Internet search engines.

Savvy, marketing-minded author-lawyers can also use such articles to heighten awareness and demonstrate excellent customer service to their clients and prospects. Using direct outreach via one-to-one email, these attorneys can show proactive attention and demonstrate knowledge of the targets’ industries, thereby harnessing a proven way to nurture relationships and win new business.

Old-school rainmakers with existing books of business and established reputations may not view blogging as a beneficial use of their time. However, many of these key influencers still understand the benefit of developing a marketing-mindset culture within their firms and go the extra mile to promote buy-in from junior partners and associates.


By Phillips Murrah Marketing Director Dave Rhea

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on October 25, 2018.

Dave Rhea is marketing director at the law firm of Phillips Murrah in Oklahoma City.

Phillips Murrah rowing team wins gold in 2018 Oklahoma Regatta Festival

Law & Oarder, Phillips Murrah's rowing team, gets ready to compete in the 2018 Oklahoma Regatta Festival.

Law & Oarder, Phillips Murrah’s rowing team, gets ready to compete in the 2018 Oklahoma Regatta Festival.

Phillips Murrah’s rowing team Law & Oarder ended the Fall 2018 season on top and scored gold medals in the annual regatta competition.

The team competed on Sept. 28 at the 2018 Oklahoma Regatta Festival held at the OKC Boathouse District and achieved a 500-meter run of 2:05:39.

“Another great season, and I think the main thing we learned as a team is to never underestimate your competition,” said Deena Baker, Legal Assistant and Law & Oarder team captain. “Regardless, a gold medal and trophy for the team it was!”

In all nine seasons the Firm’s rowing team has competed, team members consisted of both attorneys and staff members.

“The team worked really hard all season,” said Bradley Burt, Legal Assistant. “We had some changes in the seating configuration as well as multiple rained out practices, but the team overcame a lot of adversity and practiced indoors even when it was not necessary allowing us to perform to the best of our abilities.”

“I am ecstatic that competing to the best of our abilities led us to the gold medal.”

The team will resume practice in the Spring for the Stars & Stripes Festival in June 2019.


Journal Record and Oklahoman Best Places to Work of 2017

Phillips Murrah has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Oklahoma in 2017 by The Journal Record and an Oklahoma Top Work Place by The Oklahoman/Energage three years in a row. Our Firm strives to recognize and reward our employees for excellence.

Firm selects Employee of the Month for September 2018

Tifany Manning

Tifany Manning

Tifany Manning, Legal Assistant, is Phillips Murrah’s Employee of the Month for September 2018.

“Wow, it’s such a privilege to be chosen as Employee of the Month,” she said. “My bosses and co-worker’s are the BEST around!  I love my job and thankful I get to work for such a great firm.”

The Employee of the Month is selected anonymously by Phillips Murrah staff on merits of teamwork and overall contributions to the Firm.

“It has been a pleasure and honor to work with Tifany,” Director Jennifer L. Miller said. “No matter the task, Tifany always has a positive and professional attitude. Her work ethic and dedication to excellence is immeasurable.

“Tifany is a valuable member of the Phillips Murrah team and the award is very much deserved.”

Starting this month, the Firm will begin making a donation to the winner’s charity of choice.

“I chose Cavett Kids Foundation as my charity,” Manning said. “Cavett Kids strives to help kids with severe and life threatening illnesses have some normalcy by attending camps, of which they have six different ones, and just be a kid doing kid things.

“I have volunteered several times and learn something from these sweet kiddos every time. I love their mission, their values and their motto.”

Phillips Murrah attorneys volunteer each year with the foundation’s Camp Cavett send-off.

To learn more about Cavett Kids Foundation and how you can get involved, visit their website here.


Journal Record and Oklahoman Best Places to Work of 2017

Phillips Murrah has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Oklahoma in 2017 by The Journal Record and an Oklahoma Top Work Place by The Oklahoman/Energage three years in a row. Our Firm strives to recognize and reward our employees for excellence.

Firm selects Employee of the Month for August 2018

Deena Baker

Deena Baker

Deena Baker, Legal Assistant, is Phillips Murrah’s Employee of the Month for August 2018.

“It is once again an honor to be recognized as employee of the month,” she said. “My co-workers and bosses are the best a person could ask for!

“It’s a great privilege to be part of such a wonderful firm and awesome team!”

The Employee of the Month is selected anonymously by Phillips Murrah staff on merits of teamwork and overall contributions to the Firm.

“Deena works until the job is done right, regardless of what the clock says, which is a function of her strong work ethic,” Director Juston R. Givens said. “The value Deena brings to my practice and the work she does for the Phillips Murrah team is truly immeasurable.”


Journal Record and Oklahoman Best Places to Work of 2017

Phillips Murrah has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Oklahoma in 2017 by The Journal Record and an Oklahoma Top Work Place by The Oklahoman/Energage three years in a row. Our Firm strives to recognize and reward our employees for excellence.

Avoiding a bankruptcy clawback: shield your business payments

A business owner learns that one of her customers has filed for bankruptcy. She rushes to check her books and breathes a sigh of relief after seeing that the customer paid all of their outstanding invoices just days before going bankrupt. Unbeknownst to the business owner, those payments may have to be paid back to the bankruptcy estate as a clawback.

Clayton Ketter

Clayton D. Ketter is a Director and a litigator whose practice involves a wide range of business litigation in both federal and state court, including extensive experience in financial restructurings and bankruptcy matters.

One of the principal policies underlying bankruptcy law is fairness to creditors, which attempts to ensure that similarly situated creditors are treated equally. To promote this goal, creditors in a bankruptcy are placed into classes, with members of each class sharing proportionally in distributions of a bankrupt debtor’s assets.

This policy can be hampered when a debtor pays a preferred creditor immediately before a bankruptcy, to the detriment of other creditors. To ensure that a debtor’s limited money does not disappear to creditors favored by the debtor, the Bankruptcy Code allows a bankruptcy trustee to claw back such payments.

A payment is considered a preference if it meets five criteria: It is made to a creditor; for a debt owed prior to the payment being made; while the debtor was insolvent; during either 90 days before the bankruptcy filing for ordinary creditors or one year for insiders of the debtor; which allowed the creditor to receive more than it would have received in distributions from the bankruptcy estate.

If a payment is a preference, it must be paid back to the trustee unless a valid defense can be established.

Several defenses are available to creditors, including for substantially contemporaneous exchanges. Typically, point-of-sale transactions and those that involve cash on delivery will meet this defense. Another common defense exists for payments made in the ordinary course of business, which analyzes the typical transactions between the parties and in the relevant industry. If it is common for a debtor to pay invoices within 60 days of delivery, for example, those payments may meet the ordinary course defense.

Businesses can take steps to shield payments received from financially troubled customers from being subject to bankruptcy clawback or preference liability. The most effective means is to require prepayment, COD, or point-of-sale transactions only. Businesses can also strategically apply payments to invoices in a manner designed to fit within preference defenses.

To recover a preference, the bankruptcy trustee must commence a lawsuit within the bankruptcy case, typically preceded by a demand letter. Any business that receives such a letter should consult with bankruptcy counsel to determine whether they have valid defenses to the claim. Consulting with a bankruptcy attorney is also advisable prior to entering into sizable business transactions with a financially troubled company to attempt to eliminate preference risk. Doing so can help reduce the risk that a business gets embroiled in a bankruptcy, and worse, has to repay money that it was owed due to bankruptcy clawback.


Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on September 13, 2018.

By Phillips Murrah Director Clayton D. Ketter

Clayton D. Ketter is a litigation attorney at Phillips Murrah P.C. who specializes in financial restructuring.

Firm selects Employee of the Month for July 2018

Nanette Morris

Nanette Morris

Nanette Morris, Paralegal, is Phillips Murrah’s Employee of the Month for July 2018.

“I’ve worked for Phillips Murrah for almost 19 years, and I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to work,” Morris said. “The work is challenging and fun, and – even better – I get to work with so many smart and talented people.

“I really do love my job!”

The Employee of the Month is selected anonymously by Phillips Murrah staff on merits of teamwork and overall contributions to the Firm.

“Nanette has been with the firm for over eighteen years and is a highly skilled legal assistant,” Director Elizabeth K. Brown said. “She plays an integral role in our transactional and estate planning department.

“With her positive and professional demeanor, she works well even under the most stressful situations in  the practice of law. She is smart, hard-working and dependable and always a pleasure to work with. She definitely deserves this honor.”


Journal Record and Oklahoman Best Places to Work of 2017

Phillips Murrah has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Oklahoma in 2017 by The Journal Record and an Oklahoma Top Work Place by The Oklahoman/Energage three years in a row. Our Firm strives to recognize and reward our employees for excellence.

Firm selects Employee of the Month for June 2018

Tess Bromme

Tess Bromme

Tess Bromme, Billing Coordinator, is Phillips Murrah’s Employee of the Month for June 2018.

“I am beyond thankful to call Phillips Murrah my place of work and to be recognized in this way is a fantastic honor,” Bromme said.

The Employee of the Month is selected anonymously by Phillips Murrah staff on merits of teamwork and overall contributions to the Firm.

“Tess is a valued member of the Accounting Department and her contributions help to make the Firm run efficiently,” Controller Stephanie Oseland said. “She is a hardworking and positive person, and it is a pleasure to work with her. She deserves this honor.”


Journal Record and Oklahoman Best Places to Work of 2017

Phillips Murrah has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Oklahoma in 2017 by The Journal Record and an Oklahoma Top Work Place by The Oklahoman/Energage three years in a row. Our Firm strives to recognize and reward our employees for excellence.

Monkey’s business? Claims of copyright infringement and photography

In 2011, a nature photographer in an Indonesian nature reserve left his camera unattended in the forest. A 7-year-old crested macaque monkey named Naruto, perhaps in an effort to increase its Instagram followers, decided to take several selfies using the camera. The photographer then, in 2014, published the monkey’s photographs in a book for sale online. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sued as next friend of Naruto seeking to enforce Naruto’s claims of copyright infringement to the photographs and to recover profits from the sale of the book.

Cody Cooper

Cody Cooper is a Patent Attorney in the Intellectual Property Practice Group and represents individuals and companies in a wide range of intellectual property, patent, trademark and copyright matters. His practice also includes commercial litigation.

The question became whether Naruto had statutory standing to claim copyright infringement on what became referred to as Monkey Selfies. According to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the answer is no.

Humans, unlike monkeys, have a constitutional right to protect their works and inventions under Clause 8 of Section 8 contained within Article I of the Constitution, and those rights are further set out in the United States Copyright Act. These rights include the right to use, distribute, sell, duplicate, display and create derivative works. These rights are most commonly associated with books, magazines, plays, paintings and photographs, but can also apply to things like architecture and even graffiti.

The 9th Circuit, in Naruto, et al., v. Slater, et al., No. 16-15469 (9th Cir. April 23, 2018) affirmed the trial court’s ruling that, despite the fact that the monkey had standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, Naruto did not have standing under the Copyright Act to bring the lawsuit. In other words, monkeys (or any other animal) cannot bring claims of copyright infringement because the Copyright Act does not expressly authorize it. So, Naruto’s case was dismissed.

Citing Cetacean Cmty. v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169, 1175 (9th Cir. 2004) as precedent, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that “if an Act of Congress plainly states that animals have statutory standing, then animals have statutory standing. If the statute does not so plainly state, then animals do not have statutory standing.”

If Naruto teaches nothing else, it should be to remember that if you see your pet attempting to take a selfie with an abandoned camera, be sure to take the picture yourself, in case it becomes famous. Someone will be making money on it, and it might as well be you.


By Phillips Murrah Attorney Cody J. Cooper

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

Cody J. Cooper is a patent attorney with the Oklahoma City law firm of Phillips Murrah.

Firm selects Employee of the Month for May 2018

Tyler Sullivan

Tyler Sullivan

Tyler Sullivan, Administrative Assistant, is Phillips Murrah’s Employee of the Month for May 2018.

“I have the privilege of working with an incredible group of people, and I feel so honored that they chose to recognize me as Employee of the Month,” Sullivan said.

The Employee of the Month is selected anonymously by Phillips Murrah staff on merits of teamwork and overall contributions to the Firm.

“Tyler started with our Firm in an entry level position, and has proven that she is capable of much more,” Executive Director Michelle Munda said. “She was recently promoted, and she continues to grow at our Firm.

“We are happy that she works here with us and look forward to more advancement for her!”


Journal Record and Oklahoman Best Places to Work of 2017

Phillips Murrah has been recognized as one of the Best Places to Work in Oklahoma in 2017 by The Journal Record and an Oklahoma Top Work Place by The Oklahoman/Energage three years in a row. Our Firm strives to recognize and reward our employees for excellence.

Roth: An open letter of thanks

By Jim Roth, Director and Chair of the Firm’s Clean Energy Practice Group. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on June 4, 2018.


Jim Roth is a Director and Chair of the firm’s Clean Energy Practice.

Roth: An open letter of thanks

Occasionally in life our journeys come full circle in a way that allows for reflection and gratitude, such as this, my last recurring column in this newspaper.

As a 13-year-old I was a paper boy for my hometown’s Wednesday and Friday Johnson County Sun newspaper. I would come home from school, find the large bundles on my doorstep, set about folding them and placing them inside the large canvas side bag and ride my bike while throwing the papers onto the lawns of the subscribing homeowners, often until dusk. In the rain the papers got a plastic bag, otherwise green rubber bands bound the tri-folded news. And then once a month I would walk the neighborhood knocking doors to collect the $2 per subscriber. I much preferred the time on my bike rather than the time chasing money. That hasn’t changed.

What has changed for me personally is that for the past nine years I have had the privilege to share a weekly column on the inside of a newspaper and a really good paper at that. The Journal Record is Oklahoma’s oldest business publication and since 1903 scores of hardworking reporters, designers, editors, printers and staff have consistently created an award-winning daily general business and legal publication. It’s been an honor to be an occasional columnist among those hard-working folks.

What has changed for the industry since 1903 is monumental. Gone are the Norman Rockwell-esque newspaper routes across America, replaced in part by online subscribers and clicks to drive readers’ interest and revenue. Color, font size, specialty sections and even the size of headlines compared to the size of news stories have all changed. But one thing hopefully has remained true: Americans need real and accurate news to not only sustain, but to improve, the greatest experiment in human governance, this American adventure of ours. And we need to actually read it for it to matter.

Joseph Pulitzer famously said: “What a newspaper needs in its news, in its headlines, and on its editorial page is terseness, humor, descriptive power, satire, originality, good literary style, clever condensation and accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!” And although he is best known for the Pulitzer Prizes created from his endowment of Columbia University, he is less known, ironically, for the use of “yellow journalism” (along with his chief rival William Randolph Hearst) to appeal to broader masses through lesser researched, or less accurate “news.”

Today, my car radio presets for satellite news scroll through CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CNBC and the BBC. When those five prove frustratingly weak, biased or more ads than substance, the sixth preset is the comedy station for a much-needed break from it all. But we can’t take too many breaks from it all, or the hot air and yellow journalism risk replacing the importance of accuracy, fair reporting, deep thinking and the power of sunshine for our society.

So Thank You. Thank you to you readers for your interest in this publication and the importance of good journalism from these full-time professionals at The Journal Record. Thank you to those of you in journalism and news today who actually strive to be accurate, who know being balanced is more than a slogan and it requires genuine effort, and to those of you working long hours to provide today’s 24/7 news appetite, but who know that no matter how late the story, the truth is always timely.

I am grateful for you. And I am grateful for the chance to have shared energy and environmental ideas and observations for Oklahoma and beyond these past years, in a publication that strives every day to deliver the truth. Thank you.

Jim Roth has been appointed to serve as the new dean of the Oklahoma City University School of Law beginning July 1, and as an alum of OCU Law, will be enjoying that life’s full-circle opportunity of service.

ADA Lawsuits Add Pressure to Business Websites

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to government programs and services.

Kathryn Terry

The emphasis of Kathryn D. Terry’s litigation practice is in the areas of insurance coverage, labor and employment law and civil rights defense. She also represents corporations in complex litigation matters.

The third section of ADA, Title III, addresses places of public accommodation, such as retailers, hospitals and state agencies. Under these rules, and in general, places of business are obligated to provide access to physical locations in the form of wheelchair ramps, signs that feature braille, and other means by which patronage of businesses is made possible for disabled persons.

Currently, similar attention is being focused on websites, as many businesses offer information and opportunities and conduct commerce via their website. Lawsuits are being brought claiming that these websites should be fully usable for persons with disabilities, just like brick-and-mortar locations.

To address Title III compliance, the World Wide Web Consortium developed an evolving set of standardized guidelines for improving accessibility to website content. The most recent, widely accepted version is called Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA, commonly referred to as WCAG 2.0 AA, which recommend, among many suggestions, text alternatives to graphics for visual disabilities, and captions to audio for those with hearing impairments.

Within the past few years, growing exponentially in 2017, lawsuits on behalf of disabled persons have been filed claiming website-related violations of ADA Title III. Recently, the lawsuits have been coming in waves, with online retailers being the first obvious targets, followed by online financial institutions, such as banks and credit unions, both large and small.

While there are no laws mandating WCAG 2.0 AA compliance at this time, the absence of any regulatory requirement does not shield businesses from ADA liability under Title III. Most businesses that have more than 15 full-time employees are subject to the ADA, and even if a business has less than 15, Oklahoma’s state law still applies.

However, in Oklahoma, there is a new statute that requires prior notice and an opportunity to cure the website issues in advance of any litigation under state law only. Businesses should consider this statute carefully if they receive a demand or lawsuit of ADA noncompliance for their website.

Many businesses are smartly getting ahead of this issue by reviewing their websites to identify potential accessibility barriers and implementing WCAG 2.0 AA guidelines as part of regular IT upgrades.


By Phillips Murrah Director Kathryn D. Terry

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on May 10, 2018.

Kathryn D. Terry is a director at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.