"Cat's paw" is a legal term referring to someone's influencing another person to do something (illegal, obviously) and thus potentially becoming liable as well.

For instance in work-related circumstances, if a department manager has it in for a certain employee and the employee is then fired by his or her direct supervisor for performance reasons, can the terminated employee sue for discrimination based on the higher-up's animus?

In Staub v. Proctor Hospital, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled no—a non-firing supervisor's discrimination does not apply a la the "cat's paw" theory when an employee is fired by someone else who harbors no personal discriminatory intent.

On Tuesday (March 1, 2011), the Supreme Court unanimously overruled the Circuit Court in a case involving USERRA rights.

(The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act protects those serving in the military from civilian employment discrimination and/or retaliation arising from their military obligations.)

Vincent Staub worked for Proctor Hospital while serving in the military. He would miss shifts due to military obligations, which riled his immediate supervisors. He was fired, however, by the vice president of human resources, who personally harbored no anti-military feelings. Staub then sued based on USERRA.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia noted that the language of USERRA is similar to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, so the ruling will likely have implications in that context. Both statutes state that discrimination is established when one of those factors is "a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice."

Employers, be sure to stay in compliance with USERRA by obtaining a copy of Personnel Concepts' USERRA Military Leave Compliance Kit to help you develop your own company policies and practices to prevent discrimination and retaliation.