Hello Seeking Help,
My name is Ben. I'm a licensed attorney. Glad to try and help out.
Sure sorry for the circumstances, truly. My heart goes out to you.
Accordingly, I'll speak candidly rather than doing you the disservice of lying or misleading you. Both the law and the contract are favorable to your former employer, I regret to say. Having carefully considered everything you're shared here, and in particular considering the amount of money at issue, here is what I would recommend. There are some instances where going forward without legal counsel is a viable option. This is not one of them, however, and in all candor communication from a pro se party will receive barely more than a passing glance, to be brutally honest, especially when facing a corporate opponent with its legal resources.
I would have the case screened on the merits by a local attorney. This can only be done through having a lawyer review the circumstances. Your next step at this juncture is to confer with legal counsel, but the good news is that process is entirely free of charge to you. I am required to follow site rules including refraining from accepting cases and/or making direct referrals to named attorneys. However, I can tell you where I would turn were I in your very shoes. Toward that end, my very next step would be to take advantage of the resources of the non-profit, American Bar Association accredited, National Board of Trial Advocacy Division of the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification. Here is a listing of all such Board Certified Civil Trial Advocates practicing in your jurisdiction (please just click the following link):California
Truly, your most pressing need is to arrange for an attorney reply to this matter at your very earliest opportunity. No other approach is going to suffice here.
If you have a follow-up question or need clarification, please just say the word by using "reply" to reach me.
I truly hope all works out for you.