California Employment Law
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No, your employer cannot prevent you from leaving. That would be a form of involuntary servitude, which courts banned long ago. Your employer's sole remedy would be to sue you for breach of contract after the fact to try and collect what they are owed pursuant to the terms of your contract. The thing about lawsuits is they are very expensive and time consuming to pursue. This is good for an individual in your circumstance because it gives you leverage to negotiate a reduced settlement and/or installments. For your employer it's still better than the litigation alternative.
You can attempt this negotiation now or after you leave. No matter what, your employer cannot stop you from leaving, though. You can do that at your free will, and no court will order you to go back.
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