Hello and thank you for entrusting me to answer your question. I am very sorry to hear about your very negative experience at this job and the fact that they are now trying to get you to pay back part of your signing bonus.
The signing bonus structure you describe is somewhat unusual and treads ambiguous legal ground. This is because, as a general principle, earned wages cannot be forfeited. Thus, in any situation where an employee is forced to "give back" money that the employer has paid, things can get a bit confusing.
Such a signing bonus would be legally enforceable only if it clearly and unequivocally stated that continued employment for X years or months was a prerequisite to retention of the bonus. In that sense, the bonus would not be a "wage" paid at the time the offer of employment is accepted, but rather a carrot-and-stick financial incentive that "vests" upon completion of the designated periods of employment--much like stock options.
An individual in your circumstance would need to argue that the signing bonus constituted a "wage earned" at the time it was initially paid, and as such, cannot be forfeited. However, if the contract clearly stated that the bonus would not be "earned" until completion of certain lengths of employment, this may be a losing argument.
Generally, the best course of action would be to submit the matter to the Department of Labor Standard Enforcement for them to decide how the payment of your bonus should be characterized. To file a wage claim with the DLSE, visit this link: http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/howtofilewageclaim.htm
So to summarize, a signing bonus structure such as what you have described is unusual and presents an issue with regard to forfeiture of wages earned. However, assuming the agreement clearly set forth that the bonus was not a vested "wage" but subject to revocation, as appears was the case for you, it is possibly enforceable in much the same way as stock option incentives. Disputes such as this are often best resolved by filing a wage claim with the DLSE, which can issue an order regarding the nature of the bonus payment.
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