Mike Leidholt

Michael Leidholt retired in January 2019 after a quarter century as Hughes County sheriff to take a job just a few steps away as state Secretary of Corrections, in charge of South Dakota's prisons. He's seen here in January 2019 in the Solem Public Safety Center in Pierre which includes offices for both agencies as well as the state Women's Prison. This month, Leidholt as former sheriff and other county officials were sued in federal court by the family of a man who died after falling ill in the jail in July 2018.

The family of a man who died two years ago after becoming ill in the Hughes County Jail in Pierre has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the county and several county employees, including two nurses, as well as South Dakota Secretary of Corrections Michael Leidholt, who was county sheriff in 2018.

The lawsuit was filed July 17, 2020, in U.S. District Court in Pierre by Valerie Estes, as special administrator of the estate of Seryl Leroy Pomani. It claims a lack of care by jail officials and employees led to Pomani's death.

Estes is a sister of Pomani, who died July 18, 2018, in a Sioux Falls hospital, a day or two after he was found unresponsive in his cell in the Hughes County Jail in Pierre, according to the lawsuit.

“On July 18, 2018, after consultation with Mr. Pomani’s family about his poor prognosis, Mr. Pomani suffered a cardiac arrest and died from an anoxic brain injury, diabetic ketoacidosis and insulin dependent diabetes mellitus,” according to the complaint. The latter three conditions are complications of diabetes.

Pomani was 32 when he died, according to federal court documents.

Pomani had been charged in June 2018 with third-degree burglary and larceny, involving the theft of a water pump, generator and tools from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Water Resources building. He was arrested July 13 in Rosebud and taken into custody by the U.S. Marshals Service, which, under a contract with Hughes County, took him that day to the jail in Pierre.

Pomani had a history of serious medical conditions, including Type I diabetes, diabetic neuropathy, asthma, hypertension, post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. He was prescribed medications for these conditions, including insulin, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit claims that jail policy required jail staff to follow a chain of command that included getting approval from Nurse Jaclyn Lowitz, or if she was not available, Nurse Julie Cox, “to approve further care. Only in the event of an obvious emergency was staff to call for emergency care, such as if an inmate was ‘bleeding out,’ “ according to the complaint.

Pomani had been in the county jail before, “so the (jail) staff, including Nurse Lowitz, were familiar with Mr. Pomani, including the fact he had a complicated medical history,” according to the complaint.

Then-Sheriff Leidholt and Jail Administrator Bill Dodge, “made it clear to HCJ’s correctional staff that failure to follow this medical chain of command and abide by the nurses’ directives would subject the staff members to potential disciplinary action.”

While Pomani was being booked into the jail on Friday, July 13, a booking officer checked Pomani’s blood sugar, which registered between 350 and 400, which jail employees recognized as abnormally high and tried to contact Lowitz.

She had left for the day but was reached by phone. Told of Pomani’s blood sugar levels, Lowitz said she would come in on Monday, July 16 “to evaluate” Pomani’s medical condition, according to the complaint.

But during the weekend, Pomani “complained of increasing discomfort” and jail staff workers “became increasingly concerned that he was having a serious medical issue from what they could observe about his physical condition. . . . correctional officers made repeated calls to Nurse Lowitz “about his symptoms and medications.” Lowitz’s “repeated response was that she would be there ‘on Monday’ to evaluate Mr. Pomani. She did not approve any further medical treatment or the distribution of his prescribed medications.”

Lowitz did not check on Pomani during the weekend, nor refer jail correctional employees to Cox or seek her approval for giving him medications or give other instructions on how to address his condition, the complaint alleges.

The complaint also alleges:

The jail staff was not authorized to contact Cox without Lowitz’s approval.

By Sunday, jail employees could see Pomani “was suffering from physical symptoms, including sweating, vomiting and nausea.”

On Sunday, July 15, jail employees took another blood test and blood pressure measurement. The jail equipment at that time “did not register blood sugar results above 600, and thus the policy was to record such results at ‘high,’ which is how the staff workers registered it. They also found his blood pressure had dropped from previous tests.

The complaint appears to have confused the dates July 16 and July 17 at one or two places in the complaint; but from other paragraphs, and the calendar, the period of time involved in the jail was Friday, July 13, 2018 to Monday, July 16, 2018, when early in the morning, jail employees “discovered Mr. Pomani unresponsive in his cell.”

He was given a furlough by Magistrate Judge Mark Moreno that day for emergency medical care and transferred that day to Avera hospital in Sioux Falls. He died on July 18, according to the complaint.

The complaint also alleges:

Lowitz and five unnamed defendants at the jail “knew of and disregarded Mr. Pomani’s serious medical needs even though they were known to them. . .”

Cox, Leidholt and Dodge “approved, trained staff about and enforced policies athat allowed Nurse Lowitz and other staff to delay or interfere with the distribution of prescribed medications and inmates’ rights to have medical care by instructing staff that staff had to abide by Nurse Lowitz’ instructions about denial or delay in medication distribution or further care.”

The defendants’ “inactions, failures and delays amounted to a deliberate indifference for Mr. Pomani’s serious medical needs and constitute violations of his civil rights under the 8th and 14th amendments,” the plaintiff claims.

The complaint asks for damages for Pomani’s injuries, pain and suffering” and for his “wrongful death and the loss of his companionship, support, aid, advice and assistance” as allowed under state law.

It was the jail’s policy to “fail to train its jail staff” about the obligation to provide prescribed medications and medical care to Pomani, and “to allow Nurse Lowitz’s personal schedule to dictate whether prisoners were subject to delay or denial of prescription medications and reasonable medical care,” according to the complaint.

Estes asks for the court to award her and other family members money equal to what Pomani would have recovered for his pain and suffering if he had lived, but also including all expenses for his medical care, death and burial. The complaint also asks the court to compensate his surviving family with a sum for the permanent loss of his companionship, support, aid, advice and assistance, as well as punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

Estes said her brother is survived by a child and several siblings.

Kevin Hipple, manager of the Hughes County Commission, said he had not seen the lawsuit yet, so he could not comment on it.

In 2016, Pomani was sentenced to five months in jail on the Rosebud reservation after he and four others broke into the tribe’s DaVita Dialysis Center and stole star quilts and dream catchers and sold the items, using the money to buy methamphetamine and marijuana, according to an investigation by tribal law enforcement and federal prosecutors.

U.S. District Judge Roberto Lange recused himself from the case, citing a federal rule that includes a variety of possible or apparent professional or personal conflicts of interests.

But the case will remain in the Pierre court, handled by another judge, a court official said.

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