The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on Tuesday concerning an issue that has divided federal courts for years: Should an employer be held accountable for workplace discrimination that leads to a termination when the discrimination is not committed by the person making the firing decision?

The idea that employers can be held liable under such circumstances is known as the 'cat's paw" theory, a term derived from a 17th century French fable in which a monkey coaxes a cat into snatching chestnuts from a fire. The cat's paw is burned in the process and the monkey runs off with the roasted chestnuts, essentially getting what he wanted while someone else paid the price.

The plaintiff in Staub v. Proctor Hospital, Vincent Staub, was a radiology technician at Proctor Hospital in Illinois for 14 years until his termination in April 2004. As an active member of the Army Reserves, he was required to take frequent time off from work. One of his supervisors, however, was allegedly unreceptive to the needs of his duties – court papers filed by the plaintiff describe her as 'hostile' -- because it made scheduling shifts difficult. A co-worker also criticized Staub's service duties, and eventually complained to the HR manager, who subsequently fired Staub for a supposedly unrelated issue. (His employers claimed Staub left work without notifying his superiors; Staub, however, says he had just gone to the hospital cafeteria, and had left a message with a superior.)

Staub sued on the grounds of discrimination, claiming his dismissal was a violation of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1984 (USERRA). Under the act, an employer can be found liable of discrimination if the plaintiff can prove his or her military service was a 'motivating factor' in the dismissal.

The matter in this case, of course, is complicated because the person who did the actual firing, the HR manager, is not accused of discrimination. Rather, the firing allegedly occurred because of the influence of those displaying animus toward Staub.

'The dismissal of an employee is often the result of the interrelated actions and decisions of several officials,' said Eric Schnapper, a professor at the University of Washington Law School who represented Staub before the court, in his opening statement. 'Our standard is not whether it's a supervisor, but whether it's an official for whom the employer is liable under agency law. That would not be every supervisor. If a supervisor unrelated to this particular department put a false charge in a suggestion box, that wouldn't be any different.'

Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., countered that not everything, including a bad or biased report, is actionable under anti-discrimination statutes. 

Staub's initial victory in a jury trial was later reversed by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which ruled the plaintiff had not presented enough evidence showing the 'non-decision-maker' in the case had enough influence over the decision-maker to justify a discrimination claim. The Supreme Court is expected to rule later this term.

Outside of the USERRA, the court's decision will have big implications on how the 'cat's paw' theory plays out under a variety of other anti-discrimination laws, including the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The lawsuit serves as another reminder to employers to remain vigilant against workplace discrimination, and that all firing decisions should be well vetted.